Nothing new under the sun

by George Clifford

The week between Christmas and New Year's, I spent some of time digitally scanning 35mm slides that my father-in-law had taken over the course of about forty-years. The slides recorded his life's journey. They recorded places to which he had travelled, people he had known, his well-loved family, and his ministry. While I processed the slides, my thoughts drifted not only over the events and people he photographed but also over how dramatically technology has changed in the last two centuries.

Before the Civil War, photography was rare; in the latter half of the nineteenth century, photography remained too difficult and expensive for most amateurs; professionals took the preponderance of photographs. Then, inventive individuals such as George Eastman, founder of Kodak, lowered the cost and simplified the process. Photography soared in affordability and popularity.

Today, film is increasingly difficult to obtain. The Kodak Corporation is struggling to survive. Cameras are almost all digital; stand-alone cameras are increasingly rare as people use cameras built into a cellphone, tablet, or other device. A replacement bulb for a 35mm slide projector – if you can find one – is costly. A few of the sales clerks from whom I sought information about scanners with which to digitize 35mm slides did not know what a 35mmn slide was. Unsurprisingly, I found more information and better prices for slide scanners on the internet.

So, is the book of Ecclesiastes wrong? Are there some new things under the sun?

People take and cherish photographs because human memories are fallible and incomplete. Furthermore, neuroscientists have demonstrated that human memory actually degrades over time. Yet, past moments and the memories of those moments define who I am, what I have done, and help me to recall people I love or who are important to me.

Before photography, people treasured other mementos, items such as a painted portrait, lock of hair, article of clothing, or piece of furniture. People sometimes passed mementos from one generation to the next as a means of preserving their identity and heritage. With the advent of photography, such keepsakes became increasingly rare. Photographs are more affordable, transportable, and easier to share. Perhaps most important, photographs offer a fuller, richer, way to recall precious memories.

This desire to cherish our links with the past seems constant. Technology has changed, but the underlying human motivation to hold on to cherished memories that shape and inform one's identity has remained constant. This is not new.

The anamnesis – the part of the Eucharistic prayer that recalls Jesus' life, death, and resurrection – is important precisely because it preserves our link with Jesus. We have no photographs of Jesus and no keepsakes (unless one accepts as genuine alleged artifacts of the true cross, the shroud of Turin, or other such items of highly dubious historicity). Our connection to Jesus is verbal, perhaps fittingly so given the gospel of John's portrayal of Jesus as the Word of God.

When Jesus seems distant, or unreal, the anamnesis (or, remembrance) that informs and shapes our Christian identity can helpfully center on the life of a saint, i.e., a person in whose life we, or at least some Christians, have seen or heard God's word en-fleshed. In our remembrance, we can experience anew God's presence and love, exactly as recalling other cherished memories enables us to renew that part of our identity and heritage.

My father-in-law died a decade ago. His widow thinks that my digitizing his 35mm slides would have delighted him because the digital images are so much easier to store, see, and share than are his antiquated and deteriorating 35mm slides.

I wonder if these changes are portents of the future. The information age offers hope that the next generation can live more fully at a lower environmental cost. Humans will still need shelter, clothes, furniture, and kitchens. But the cherished possessions that make us who we are – art, music, books, entertainment, memories, and much more – will all be digital, enabling people to live in smaller yet more comfortable domiciles. Perhaps a season of twenty-first century content focused humans will follow the twentieth century's season of conspicuous consumption. This is just one sign of hope that I discern for our creating a better, greener, richer, and more peaceful world.

As the 2014 begins, many of us make resolutions of things we want to do (or not do!) this year. Our memories can transform life's moments from disconnected dots into a ray, a trajectory anchored by birth at one end. What is the trajectory of your life, i.e., toward what (or whom) is your life aimed? In other words, what is your spiritual anamnesis?

George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years, has written Charting a Theological Confluence: Theology and Interfaith Relations and Forging Swords into Plows: A Twenty-First Century Christian Perspective on War, and blogs at Ethical Musings.

The angry priest or the boorish photographer?

by Andrew Gerns

Nearly everyone has experienced the insensitive photographer. Especially if you’ve ever presided at a wedding or a baptism.

My favorite moment came when I was doing a baptism and as the infant-candidate, the parents and sponsors gathered with me around the font, and after I invited all the children in the room to come forward and join us there, I looked up to see nearly every single adult friend and family member holding up a camera, video camera or phone.

My first thought was “I wish I had a picture of this…!”

Here was an image of how we have come to mediate our experience of the world: through a screen. We see only what we record.

But there have been times when things were more annoying. When a photographer
searches for the perfect shot but is completely unconscious of his or her context, they end up just getting in the way.

I once did a wedding where, just as the wedding party was gathered around the couple, a guy with a video camera was prowling around the group like a tiger getting reaction shots of not only the bride and groom but each member of the wedding party. I could see faces of each member of the wedding party as they reacted to the lens. The act of recording the moment had become the moment.

I was lucky. The mother of the bride, using nothing more than “The Look,” firmly directed the guy to “Sit! Stay!”

So when a video went viral showing an Episcopal priest telling a videographer, who had been shooting over his shoulder, to leave, I was sympathetic. First of all, it is clear from the video that the wedding was not in a church but at a park or catering facility, so he was doing a sacred rite at a secular location. This can be awkward because the priest tends to be seen as nothing more than 'hired help.'

When he said that the ceremony was not about the pictures but “about God,” I knew what he was saying: that this is a sacred moment, and the videographers were stealing from that by their intrusion. So part of me cheered a bit because the videographer earned the admonition.

On the other hand, the only image we have is of “The Angry Priest,” and the meme is the ruined wedding. That has become “The Story.”

The on-line comments appear to split 50-50. I have seen blog posts taking both sides. Interestingly, while there are lot of people mad at the priest for tossing out the cameraman and ruining the couple's wedding, no one appears to be mad at the cameraman for posting the altercation on YouTube and defining forever how the wedding is remembered.

Mark Twain once said “Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.” These days, when electrons are cheap and when everyone can be both a producer and publisher of content, it will not do to make a frontal assault against a culture that mediates experience through the screen. All it does is makes us look angry.

Although this never occurs to us when we are tripping over an over-zealous shutterbug, the truth is that we can’t be angry at the photographer one day and then the next bemoan that our message is not getting out. We can’t have it both ways.

Christians are in the story-telling business. And our story is Good News! We want to use these tools to communicate. As a parish priest, I love having pics and videos of worship because, well done, they tell people what we do and who we are. That means we can't snarl at photographers while expecting to use their product.

So I try to negotiate and educate. Sometimes it even works.

During the process of wedding and baptismal preparation, I direct the couple or family to tell their guests to limit their photography so that everyone can give their full attention to the moment. They should tell their friends that there will be one or two official photographers and that there will be pictures of the liturgy available later from them via e-mail, Facebook, Pinterest or some other form.

For weddings, I also have the couple give me the names of the photographers and I call them and invite them to the rehearsal as well as the wedding. This helps the photographer understand the blocking and timing, it also helps me clarify expectations and solve any unique problems. And it gives the photographer a wealth of candids.

Additionally, I have developed a list of photographers that we recommend, just as we do florists. They know our space and how we work and will make life easier for the couple.

And lastly, I ask both official and unofficial photographers to send me the pictures and grant the church the right to use them for our own communications.

All of this still doesn't prevent an intrusive photographer from happening. Just two weeks ago I did a wedding where the bride’s son, all 6'4" of him, was trying to catch the action on a pocket video camera. It was a small church and his large frame was going to block everyone's view. Of course, everyone was looking at him and not what was happening. Also, the official photographer--who was doing as I asked-- did not appreciate that she was being limited while this unpaid visitor was doing as he pleased. I did not stop the liturgy, but I did walk over to him (and, yes, still in full view of the group) at the first “break” in the action and quietly asked him to step aside and park himself in a spot where he could still take the pictures of his mother and not distract people from witnessing and blessing her marriage.

In a world where we more and more mediate experience through screens, one of the things we can do as a church is remind people that the best photographs, films and videos describe, highlight and interpret a much bigger world. The idea is to both communicate and take us back to a moment in time that is bigger than our perceptions and means more to us than we even realized in the moment. In other words, what photography does is very much like what liturgy does.

Both can connect us, aid in interpreting our experience, and help us makes memory.

Both liturgy and media help us know, tell and live our story.

But bad photography (and unconscious photographers) can like bad liturgy (and unconscious celebrants) get in the way. This is what happened in the video when it went viral: the conversation became about “The Angry Priest vs. The Boorish Photographers” when we should have been celebrating the couple’s marriage.

Photographic technology is so accessible that we forget all the work that goes into a good production. Similarly, a good liturgy should look easy because all the practice has paid off. One of the pastoral challenges of our day is to bring the two together in ways that allow us to see more deeply into the world God has placed us in and contribute to the ongoing story of God’s unfolding, creative love.


The Rev. Canon Andrew Gerns is rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Easton, Pennsylvania, President of the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Bethlehem, and a member of the newsteam of the Episcopal Café.

Read more »

Smartphones in church: permission granted

by Dan Webster

Visiting preachers have some freedom, and so for the past few Sundays at different parishes I’ve started my sermon by holding up my smartphone.

“If you have your mobile device with you it would be good if you put it on silent. But if anything in this service—a prayer, reading, hymn or this sermon—moves you, please feel free to tweet it or post it to Facebook,” I’ve said.

Reaction has been predictably mixed and I’ve had the most interesting conversations with younger congregants. Two acolytes now follow me on Instagram. Many of the 40-somethings are my newest friends on Facebook.

“That may be the first time social media has been mentioned here,” one longtime parishioner said recently.

Well, I hope it generates something at that church and others. Checking in on Foursquare, Twitter or Facebook while at church, lets friends and followers know that you actually do go to church. I view it as following the Gospel invitation to let your light shine before all, telling the Good News to all the world.

Sometimes folks just need permission.

A year ago Easter, as I was tweeting during a sermon, the rector’s wife, a friend, leaned over and said, “Not fair.” I guess she felt the need to be on her best behavior.

So did I. My best behavior was to share an inspiring quote from the sermon with my 800+ followers on social media. And I hope those words may have inspired some of them.

Spreading Good News in the 21st century is getting easier. Our reach is ever-widening. We should be grateful for these wonderful tools that truly are full of wonder. . . and use them to tell people our story.

During the first century stories of faith and God’s grace were told on mountains or shouted from rooftops. These days, the ability to do this is quite literally in the palm of our hand. How will you provide permission to share the Good News in this way?


The Rev. Dan Webster is canon for evangelism and ministry development in the Diocese of Maryland. He is the former media relations director of the National Council of Churches.

A Transgenerational Church in the Digital Age

by Lisa Fischbeck

Tanzina Vega reported for the New York Times on January 16, that the television show “Scandal” is making “friends and history”.

The article cited that the show, now in its second season, had 3.52 million viewers aged 18 to 49 and 8.4 million total viewers the previous week.

A large part of Scandal’s success is due to the skill of Kerry Washington, a rare African-American female lead who plays a complex and gifted character. But the success of the show is also due to the way in which its producers have chosen to promote it – with social media.

Week by week, cast members live tweet about each episode before it is broadcast. Fans respond, and not just on Twitter, but also on Facebook, commenting back and forth as one scene leads to another. Friends and family, in effect, “watch” the show together.
According to the New York Times report, “The network’s efforts seem to have paid off. The show has a healthy number of people tweeting during the broadcast, and virtual ‘Scandal’ parties have sprung up on Facebook so friends can watch and comment together. The last episode of the show before its hiatus in December generated 2,838 tweets per minute and a total of 157,601 tweets.”

It’s easy for church people to read such an account and wonder if we should figure out a way to do something similar in the church. And we should.

Last week, I celebrated the 20th anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. When I was ordained in January 1993, the church did not have Facebook or twitter. Clergy did not have cell phones. We did not have the Internet – which means no websites or email either.

In the study of history, 20 years is a generation. And the generation that has come of age since 1993 communicates naturally and adroitly, and almost exclusively, via the media that has sprung up in those years.

As church, we are doing a pretty good job of keeping up. Most congregations and ministries now have websites. Most clergy have email accounts. Many use Facebook. Using the analogy of the production of Scandal, we have about gotten so far as to put the TV Guide online, with show times and channels and a little commentary.

But unlike the producers of Scandal, the church cannot focus its attention on one generation only. That would not be faithful. The church is, and always has been, called to be transgenerational – to span the generations, “womb to tomb”. Indeed, in the 21st century, the church is one of the few places that still holds such a calling.

So in these years when our elders are still very much living in a print media world and our youngers increasingly go paperless, when our older generations want to gaze at word or image while our younger generations are most comfortable with split-second images on a screen and abbreviated sentences, when one generation looks for news in their mailbox and another on their smart phones, the church needs to be able to communicate with and for both at once.

We can debate about the content of that communication. We can debate about how we worship and what needs to change and what needs to stay the same. We can debate about formality of attire and the theology of hymnody. But what is not debatable is that if we want to communicate with people age 15 to 95, we are going to need to communicate via a variety of media at once, at least for the next generation or two. And we are going to need to make that a priority.

To do this, we are going to need translators and interpreters. Those of us ordained before the media transformation, are for now dependent on those who have come of age with it. And the elders are not beyond learning. The reward of a 20-something coaching a septuagenarian in the ways of sending e-prayers is great -- for both of them.

This is not to say that we will inevitably replace the goodly fellowship and sacramental worship with texts and tweets. As people of the Incarnation, the physical presence of one another as we worship God together is essential, at least on some regular basis. But youngers are already texting and tweeting as they go -- even in church (if they are there). Without compromising the mystery and solemnity, the joy and reverence that our liturgy evokes, the church needs intentionally to find ways to supplement, not replace, the physical with the digital -- cultivating inquiry, curiosity, quick quips, and dialogue (breezy and abbreviated though it may be).

These communications can indeed foster a sense of community, of being known and delighted in, part of the Body. They can remind people that God is present, they can call people to prayer, to mindfulness of God and others, (not unlike the way that the ringing of the Angelus has called the scattered to prayer for more than 700 years). They can help people to know that the church, and therefore God, desires to engage and communicate with them as they are accustomed to engaging and communicating (Wycliffe would be pleased). And they can foster humor and creative brevity (something the church often lacks).

With gadgets, wifi, and 4G, people can compare sermons based on common lectionaries across denominational and geographic boundaries, can spin religious satire on everything from sporting events to political punditry, can ask for prayer and offer it, can locate each other and the church building. Gadgets, wifi, and 4G can, and often do, create a desire to spend time with one another in person, perhaps on a Sunday, perhaps with others who aren’t on gadgets but from whom they can learn about a custom or a practice that requires taste or touch or sight, like keeping the incense lit, tending the fair linen, or singing that a cappella shape note harmony.

r u 4 that?


The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck is Vicar of the Episcopal Church of the Advocate, a 21st century mission in Chapel Hill/Carrboro, NC.


A Virtual and a Very Real Community

by Linda Ryan

I'm proud to be part of EfM, Education for Ministry. I've been a student and am now a co-mentor to two fine groups of intelligent, inquiring, contributing souls who meet weekly to worship, chat about goings-on in our lives, study and be involved in both theological reflection and a ministry of prayer. They are not much different than most EfM groups except that the folks in my groups have, for the most part, never laid physical eyes on other members of the group. My groups meet online and represent people from all over the country. Even if they are not at home, many fire up the laptops while they are traveling in order to join in the session. It's a unique and very great way of learning, interacting and preparing for ministry both inside and outside the church walls.

One question that often comes up when talking about EfM online is "How can you possibly be a community of you have never met anyone else in the group? How can it be a community when all you see are words on a screen with no body language, facial expression or tone of voice?" The answer is simple, "We can and we do."
What exactly is a community? It's a group of people with similar goals even when there are very different ideas of how to achieve those goals. It's a group where each person is important and where each person's talents and abilities are honored and their thoughts and beliefs, even if not shared by any or all in the group, are considered valid for that person and respected as such. Whether or not the group is all under one roof literally or figuratively is less important than that they all subscribe to a set of norms upon which they all agree. It is a place where confidentiality is respected and participants feel safe to express ideas, beliefs and concerns in a place where no conversation is complete until every voice is heard with respect and openness.

So how can this be achieved when even in places where people meet face-to-face have difficulty doing so? For one thing, groups online have to work a little harder since there are no visual or auditory cues to follow. One of the most important lessons is to assume good intent; what someone reads in a person's words might not be precisely the same thing that the speaker meant, so it behooves us to read generously. That might not be such a bad idea when reading the Bible as well, since what we try to read into it is far from what the original writer or speaker intended it to mean. For another, seeing the words rather than just hearing them enables us to go back and reread statements that we might have otherwise missed. But, like every group, community is achieved by the weekly reporting in of events of the week that are part of what we call the "onboard" question such as "If your week were a bookstore, which section best describes it?" or "Where was God present or absent in your week?" It is also built when prayers are sought for friends, loved ones, mere acquaintances, people impacted by tragedy, world events, illnesses, deaths, thanksgivings for the group or for blessings received. As we learn each other's stories, we form bonds that transcend distance. They truly do become a community, as real and as bonded as any face-to-face group can be.

Last week I had the pleasure of having dinner with two members of one of the groups I co-mentor. One was a lady whom I had met several times before, a delightful person and a fascinating person with whom to talk. The second person was someone whose writing I had read for some time before "meeting" her in class during her first year of EfM. The three of us sat down and the conversation flowed as if we had always met around a dinner table in person rather than being names, pictures and words on a computer screen. We simply picked up a conversation we might have just discontinued an hour, a day or even a week before. It was a testimony to the power of community that can be built in a virtual world.

EfM online offers a course of study in topics usually not covered in a local parish or in a place other than at a seminary or theological school. What it also offers is a place where one can attend class in pajamas or business suit, never miss a discussion or theological reflection, comment on a topic that was written several weeks ago, and feel a part of a community of others who care about one another and who are committed to bringing out the best in each other. So can a virtual study group become a community? Indeed it can -- and it does.


Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho's Daughter

Tweeting our business

by Michael Russell @FrMike

We are hearing a lot of high level discussion about the need to restructure the Church to make it more nimble in the emerging world around us. This week a lively discussion erupted among Deputies and their representatives on the Executive Council (EC) about a bit of communications restructuring that occurred without any high level discussion. Several EC members “tweeted” from the EC (#ECMtg) during the course of their meeting. The discussion of whether or not that was appropriate broadened out into a discussion about openness in meetings, live communications from them and then live communications from General Convention. At the moment it has all gone into mill and we have no clue quite how it might grind out.

In the midst of all that a curiosity arose about Tweeting and Twitter and I offered some clarifying input and was asked to repeat it here at Daily Episcopalian. For those of you who are not yet Tweeps here is a short course on why it is emerging as an important avenue of communication.

Think of tweets as a form of mass distribution of text messages. They are 140 characters long because that is the length of phone text messages. If you are not yet texting on your cell phone, learning to do that would be a good first step. If you are, then you are almost to the twitterdise.

Tweets instead of going to just one person go to many. When you set up a Twitter account you choose how many people or organizations you will get Tweets from automatically. This is called following. In turn, people who follow you get all your tweets. People you follow have all their tweets appear in your main window. So you can follow Episcopal News Service, Episcopal Café, and the One Campaign, really any of a zillion people or organizations out there. You will get news from them as they write it. They, or your circle of Tweep friends, can then follow you.

But you can also get tweets to people who are not following you. That is accomplished with the @ sign in front of a username. I am @FrMike which means that if you put that in any tweet you send anywhere, even if I am not following you, I will get it. If you want to send a message to the official Episcopal Church site you would type in @iamepiscopalian. If you want to see what their twitter stream looks like pop over to twitter.com/iamepiscopalian In all of the Twitter programs there is a search box and you can type just about anything into it and find a list of @ addresses.

There is a second way of getting messages out and looking for things to read. In this mode you are following ideas or discussions based on their subject. To look at a topic you use what is called a “hashtag” “#” put in front of a subject. #GC12 will get you to a discussion of General Convention 2012 and if you type a tweet with #GC12 in a message then everyone who looks at this discussion will see your comment. To find nearly any subject in the world you just type it into search and it will give you ideas of #’s to look at. Unlike following people # discussions will not automatically flow into your time stream (and if that can be done I do not yet know how!) I just keep them in my list of favorites and drop in to see what is going on.

All that said, what the heck use is Twitter? It is, in my opinion, an incredible tool for receiving real-time reports on things you care about. Last year when the Egyptian Spring occurred I would check in on #tahirsquare or #jan25 and there was an ongoing, immediate and unfiltered account of what was happening right there! When the English General Synod was meeting to discuss women bishops I followed their hashtag #GenSynod and followed the debate in real time. Last week I was one of about 150 people invited to the White House’s Executive Office Building to live tweet the President’s State of the Union address #SOTU. People from all over tuned in to #SOTU or #WHCHAT or #WHTweetup and received the stream of tweets from us tweeporters. During that hour’s speech more than 760,000 tweets occurred around the country.

Imagine everyone Anglican in the world having the capability of following, as they happen, the deliberations of the House of Deputies or “shiver” the House of Bishops. Imagine that you could follow the debate on the Anglican Covenant, Same Sex Blessings, the Budget Committee hearings, or any of the hundreds of hearings that will take place in real time. But even better, imagine that you can contribute in real time to the conversation with Deputies or Bishops sharing your insights as they streamed across their screen. Best of all this vast sea of communication will not cost TEC one thin dime.

I would suggest too that Deputies and Bishops can be twitterspondents without actually being distracted from business. GC does not move fast, nor do its hearings, so reporting as we listen is not that serious a challenge or disruption.

Tweeps-to-be out there, you have plenty of time to sign up for a free account and play with it some before July arrives. And then @FrMike and other deputies, I am sure, will be ready to keep our meetings open for your edification and if you choose, participation.

Technology has moved rapidly enough that I believe without any expense to the TEC budget we might also offer some live streaming of hearings or deliberations using iPads and streaming applications like UStream. As long as I have a signal and the bandwidth I can put live images on my UStream channel. Our capacity to have an open General Convention is now spectacular, so take the plunge!

#ECafe

Ideas for hash tags for #GC2012
#SCLM
#PB&F
#SSBs
#C&C
#Nat&IntCon. (my committee, I am on one after all)
#AngCov
#TECstructure


The Rev. Michael Russell is rector of All Souls', Point Loma, in the Diocese of San Diego. He is the author of Hooker's Blueprint: An Essence Outline of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, is a third time Deputy to General Convention, early adopter of technologies and blogs at Anglican Minimalist.

Tech lament

by Ann Fontaine

This week I read Email in the enterprise: entering its twilight and I fell into the slough of despond. A sense of drowning in tech overwhelmed me almost to the point of tears. I consider myself fairly techie. I mentor two online Education for Ministry (EfM) groups where with a friend we served as tech support for a couple of years. I do the news for the Episcopal Café on Tuesdays which entails a small amount of tech knowledge, I have started blogs for myself and for the church I serve and I manage a couple of listserves. I use Facebook™ and Twitter™ for personal and church communication. I know some basic HTML code or how to find it if I need it. So why the despair at this article?

Email is without a doubt the most tried and true technology for both enterprise and personal communication, but it’s not without its shortcomings. Specifically, Atos CEO Thierry Breton cited email’s spam-like nature as one of the biggest contributors to “information pollution” that’s bogging down management. His goal is for Atos — which has nearly 50,000 employees worldwide — to be a “zero-email company” within the next three years. In place of email, Breton says that Atos will increasingly encourage its employees to collaborate on instant messaging and social networking platforms.

This marks the first time an organization of this size has made such a definitive statement on email, but it almost certainly won’t be the last. In truth, the gradual shift from email to messaging and social networking platforms began some years ago, but it’s only recently that this phenomenon has penetrated the enterprise from the consumer side.


Is this the beginning of the end of my love affair with computers, the internet and electronic communications? Will I be able to keep up? One day will I wake up and find the connections broken and the tech beyond my ability to use it? The whole process of learning new technology is exhausting as I project myself into the future.

A couple of weeks ago I learned that the system I use frequently for online classes may change. Facebook™ continues to evolve and change. Now maybe email will go the way of the mimeograph. It is like running uphill in sand: sliding back several steps for every one ahead.

I remember the first time I used email – I loved the ability to have both the immediacy of a phone call and the time to consider one’s answer of snail mail. I was in seminary and could communicate with my friend in Singapore instantly by email. I could write papers in my stream of consciousness style and re-arrange it all later, adding footnotes effortlessly. I knew the demise of email was coming when our kids no longer answered email and we had to “text” them or “friend them” or even better “friend” their friends to get information. I learned how to text, thanks to “T9 word” taught to me at General Convention by our 18 year old Deputy. But it seems change has no end.

I like being a “tech savvy” grandma – being able to keep up with kids and grandkids. I like the connections to friends and students bringing enrichment and colleagues into my life. In a small Wyoming town it increased my access to people who shared my passions in politics and the church. It allowed us to organize and make things happen. Distance learning made it possible for people who live in isolated locations to be in a small group for study and reflection when they would not otherwise find people with similar interests.

These feelings of not keeping up will probably pass for now but a time will come when reality will “bite.” The Bible speaks to the passing of our gifts:

Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ John 21:18 (NRSV)

And reassures me that it will be okay:

O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds. So even to old age and grey hairs, O God, do not forsake me,
until I proclaim your might to all the generations to come. Your power and your righteousness, O God, reach the high heavens. Psalm 71 (NRSV)

For now I will learn all that is learnable and when the day comes when I can no longer keep up, hopefully God will provide a new thing.


The Rev. Ann Fontaine, Interim Vicar,St. Catherine's Episcopal Church, Manzanita and Nehalem, OR, keeps the blog what the tide brings in. She is the author of Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on the Bible.

Cycling through the Digital Reformation

By Elizabeth Drescher

This week, the Pew Internet & American Life Project released a report, “Social Networking Sites and Our Lives,” based on a survey of the social networking practices of Americans. The most pronounced finding across all social networking social networking sites was that active social networking participation does not, as is commonly opined, result in social isolation or a lack of relational intimacy. Further, social networking participation tends to enrich rather than diminish participation in face-to-face relationships. What does this mean for churches? As I mulled this a bit through the week, I couldn’t help but think of the digital ministry of the Rev. Bruce Robison, of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh, PA.

I profiled Robison in my new book, Tweet If You ♥ Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation. Below is an excerpt from the book that highlights Robison’s minimalist, yet high impact social media practice. My take is that mainline ministry leaders like Robison have begun to capture some of the potential of new digital media platforms to enrich church communities by engaging believers and seekers in the midst of their everyday lives. As the most recent Pew report shows, regular integrating digital engagement with less frequent face-to-face encounters enriches relationships, nurtures community, and, it would seem, contributes to sustaining the Church as a meaningful—and multi-platform—site for social and spiritual connection.

  

I imagine Bruce Robison on one of those old-timey bikes—the kind with a basket on the front and a bell that goes brrrr-ring, brrrr-ring, brrrr-ring. In my mind’s eye, he’s dressed like a nineteenth-century parson just come from morning prayer, black cassock waving behind him as he wheels over cobblestone streets to visit Mrs. Dunby, who has been uncharacteristically absent the last three mornings. It could be her arthritis acting up, he thinks. Or, perhaps it’s the cold going around that’s punctuated the homily with sniffles and coughs the past couple weeks. Whatever, it’s not like Lily Dunby to miss Morning Prayer, so the Rev. Robison pedals toward the park, waving to the gaggle of old guys drinking coffee and gossiping at a table outside the local cafe.

When this scene plays out in my head, it is always autumn in the neighborhood where the thick-stoned St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church serves as a reminder of the more upscale history of Pittsburgh’s Highland Park neighborhood, dotted as it once was with the small estates of the Carnegie-Frick-Mellon set. I see gold and scarlet leaves floating from the trees as families stroll down the avenue after Sunday services. For a very long time, though, the neighborhood’s been on somewhat harder times, a victim of the collapse of the steel industry in the seventies and one downturn after another in the years since then. It’s still a lovely neighborhood, but it’s more urban now, a little grittier, more working class with an artsy, yuppie edge.

Still, Robison brought the Herbert-esque fantasy to mind himself as we talked about his use of social media in his ministry. ‘You know, the church used to be the center of a town or a village,” Robison said. “A priest helped to keep people connected with each other in that community in very practical ways that went beyond the Sunday service. The priest was an active presence in the community, not someone just ‘over there,’ in that building we go to on Sunday.”

For Robison, blogging and being active on Facebook enables him to be that presence in a world where changed patterns of work, family, and faith in neighborhoods like Highland Park—not to mention the periodic blizzard—often amplify separateness over connection. Robison, like so many other clergy and lay leaders, posts his sermons and offers other commentary on a blog, a practice he sees as valuable in particular for the many older adults in the congregation. But his day-to-day engagements take a more minimalist form by way of Facebook.

Unlike other leaders who use Facebook in the context of their ministry, Robison is the soul of brevity in his own posts. Between periodic updates on the Steelers and the long-suffering Pirates, he posts things like, “@ our diocesan clergy conference…” or “Great morning at St. Andrew’s…” more than he offers reflection, opinion, or information. True, there are periodic announcements of church events and a note once in a while on something he’s recently read. But the real energy of Robison’s engagement on Facebook is elsewhere. He is, I would suggest, one of the Great Listeners of the Digital Reformation, the evidence of which is not his laconic status updates and posts but the number of times his wall reads “Bruce commented on [someone’s] status” or “Bruce wrote on [someone’s] wall.”

More than almost anyone in my Facebook world, Robison seems to take particular care not just to draw people into conversations he initiates on his Facebook page, but to visit the pages of people in his network and participate in their conversations or comment on the things they’ve seen as sufficiently interesting to post on their walls. It all matters to him. “I just can’t see everyone as much as I would want to,” Robison explains. “But I can pay attention to what they’re posting on Facebook, so I have at least some sense of what’s happing in people’s lives.”

He takes particular care to connect to young adults in his congregation as they head off to college. “You know, lots of these kids grow up in the church. They were acolytes. They were active in youth group,” says Robison. He continues,
Then they go off to college, and we only see them on breaks. Maybe. It used to be the case that they would often just fade away from the church. Or, maybe the church faded away from them. Now I can be more aware of what’s happening while they’re at school. And, because so many people in the congregation are also on Facebook, we can all continue to be a community for them when they are home for Christmas or over the summer. We don’t have to say much for them to know we’re still here, that they continue to be important to us.

In his Facebook interactions, then, Robison offers a balance of listening and attentiveness that is particularly meaningful in the Digital Reformation. His is a digital ministry of presence that blends something of the pastoral practice idealized in George Herbert’s The Country Parson with the wisdom practice exemplified by the desert Abbas and Ammas, early Christian monks who took refuge in the deserts outside of Egypt, Syria, Persia (present-day Iran), and present-day Turkey in the third and fourth century. These desert Mothers (Ammas) and Fathers (Abbas) were renown for the depth of spiritual wisdom they doled out to disciples and more casual seekers in memorable morsels that could be shared with others. The Ammas and Abbas are ancient tweet-masters who remind us that, as theologian and blogger Susan Thistlethwaite has insisted, “Just because something is short, doesn’t mean it has to be stupid.”
  

Consciously or not, Robison and a developing contingent of mainline digital ministry companions follow in the footsteps of the Abbas and Ammas. Early pilgrims of the Digital Reformation, they seemed to have intuited what the Pew Internet & American Life study shows: people crave connection. They want to be seen and known. It turns out that it often takes very little effort, very few words to develop and sustain such connections. As E.M. Forster put it so well, “Only connect! … Live in fragments no longer.”

Elizabeth Drescher, PhD, is a religion writer and professor of religious studies and pastoral ministries at Santa Clara University. Her research and writing focus on the spiritual lives of ordinary believers today and in the past. She is the author of Tweet If You ♥ Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation (Morehouse, 2011). This summer, with Lutheran pastor and blogger Keith Anderson, she will begin work on a hands-on guide for leaders in the Digital Reformation, Click2Save: The Digital Ministry Bible (Morehouse, 2012). Her Web site is elizabethdrescher.net.

How a smartphone can be a holy thing

By Martin Smith

Getting used to having a smartphone-easier for some than for others. I have to take it slowly, partly because I am temperamentally wary of gadgets. But I also have to take time to figure out how it can be a holy thing. Holy things are friends to our souls, we have an intimacy with them, they become part of the meaningfulness of our lives. To use a holy thing is to know that God is present in the handling of it. In his great Rule for monks, St. Benedict states with his usual directness that the monastery officer responsible for tools and utensils 'should regard them as if they were the holy vessels of the altar.' The division between sacred and secular is mainly a figment of our lack of imagination, or a symptom of our fear of letting religion out of its safe compartment.

The holiness of my smartphone 'heated up' the other day when I was getting ready to lead a Lent retreat in a house on the Hudson. I was walking by a beautiful pond in a little nature reserve up in the hills, and found myself groping for the source of a saying that kept going through my head, "To my mind it is a marvel who was on the cross: he whose eyes are as a flame of fire piercing through heaven and earth at the same moment unable to see his creatures, the work of his hands." Ah, it was a line in one of the letters of the Welsh mystic and poet Ann Griffiths, I remembered.

Then I remembered my smartphone and within a few minutes I had found the Ann Griffiths website created by the University of Cardiff, tracked down the letter and found the sentence. It was almost as if I had just been texted by a saint! And then I sat on the rocks overlooking the pond and read through her wonderful hymns one by one until there were tears in my eyes. A connection had been made not just with the past-Ann died in 1805-but through the present to eternity where the saints are alive to us because they are alive in God.

It is taking time to get used to the reality that the vast riches of spiritual writings that until just recently were accessible only in specialized libraries, and hardly known outside circles of the devout and the learned, are now available at our fingertips almost anywhere. I was in Hartford airport the other day reading a magazine article about the virtual certainty that intelligent life in fantastic abundance has already evolved or will emerge eventually throughout the billions of galaxies. Something rang a bell in my mind and I remembered that Alice Meynell had written a poem a hundred years ago in which she imagined us in eternity learning how God had been manifest to other creatures in distant part of the cosmos, as in turn we show to them Christ, God's self- expression as a human being. A few keystrokes as I sipped my Starbuck's tea, and there it was: the poem Christ in the Universe:


But in the eternities,
Doubtless we shall compare together, hear
A million alien Gospels, in what guise
He trod the Pleiades, the Lyre, the Bear.
O, be prepared, my soul! To read the inconceivable, to scan The myriad forms of God those star
unroll When, in our turn, we show to them a
Man.

A poet of Edwardian England speaks to me in the Gate area of Hartford airport and eternity opens up for both of us, lost in wonder at the certainty that the phrase, "God so loved the world" cannot possibly be restricted just to this planet, but must mean that God reaches out in saving love to all creatures who attain consciousness in this vast universe. When my flight was called and I switched off my smartphone, this new utensil of mine, did seem every bit as holy as any vessel of the altar: a medium not just of communication but of communion.

Martin L. Smith is a well-known spiritual writer and priest. He is the senior associate rector at St. Columba's, D.C.

Digital Disciple III: Deserted Islands

This is the third of three excerpts from Digital Disicple: Real Christianity in a Virtual World by Adam Thomas to be published May 2011 by Abingdon Press. You can purchase the book here.

By Adam Thomas

The new dimension of virtuality that the Tech has added to our lives has brought with it new locations, new situations, and yes, new opportunities and dangers. We are pioneers moving not along a riverbank in rickety covered wagons but along the virtual paths marked by cell towers and wi-fi hot spots. The lay of the land has changed, so to speak, and our new virtual environments are affecting us on multiple levels, which we will address over the course of this book. But before entering fully into our discussion of connection and isolation, we must address briefly the influence that the new frontier of the Tech has on our identity as social creatures.

To explore this influence, join me in a quick illustration. You attend a party; say, a company Christmas party. Spouses and children have been invited, so there’s a mix of generations milling about the lobby. On the buffet table sit cheese and crackers and one rather forlorn-looking vegetable tray. The eggnog comes in two varieties, one for grown-ups only. Bing Crosby croons softly over the PA system. Adults chat in that awkward way that always happens when home and work collide. One man’s laugh keeps rising over the low murmur in the room. Everyone attempts to avoid the mistletoe because that one creepy guy from the mailroom has claimed the territory underneath it.

Walking back from disposing of your paper plate and plastic cup, you notice a trio of people sitting on one of the lobby’s couches. A teenaged daughter of a middle manager, a graduate student doing her internship at the company, and a cubicle drone in his mid-thirties each occupy a cushion. But the cushions might as well be deserted islands for all the contact among the three of them. They sit facing forward, heads bowed. And all three are tap-tap-tapping away on their cell phones, completely disengaged from one another and from the conversations happening around them and from good old Bing dreaming of his white Christmas.

Ask yourself if you’ve ever seen this behavior. (Or perhaps, ask yourself if you’ve ever engaged in this behavior.) Now ask yourself if you think the three couch dwellers in the illustration are being antisocial. “Yes” is a perfectly acceptable answer: of course, they’re being antisocial. All those folks around talking, laughing, carrying on. So many conversations to join and eggnog bowls to hover around, and those three sit in a corner glued to their cell phones! Didn’t their parents raise them better?

If this is your reaction, I heartily agree with you, but take a moment to view the situation from another angle. Perhaps these three aren’t being antisocial. Perhaps they’re being (and I’m about to make up a word) trans-social. They may not be interacting with the bosses, employees, spouses, and creepy mailroom guys who inhabit the lobby during the Christmas party, but they are conversing with (possibly multiple) friends via text message. They are checking up on what their friends are doing and where they are doing it via Facebook and Twitter. They are being social—just not with the people close at hand.

At its broadest, trans-social behavior consists of socializing with people across a distance that makes face-to-face contact difficult. Of course, this has been around as long as there have been methods of delivering messages from one person to another: smoke signals, the Pony Express, and long correspondence like you find in Jane Austen novels. But as anyone who has read Pride and Prejudice knows, there’s an awful lot of anxious pacing around sitting rooms and garden paths during the excruciating period between letters. So beginning with telephone calls and eventually continuing with e-mails, the Tech added a dimension of immediacy to trans-social behavior. No more anxious pacing— just an upbeat “You’ve got mail” from a digital voice. With the advent of online social networking in the last decade, the Tech has combined this immediacy with widespread distribution, thus providing the infrastructure for trans-social behavior to explode.

Let’s turn back to our three trans-social folks and take a closer look. The teenager on Cushion One is updating her Facebook status with a rant about the creepy mailroom guy who keeps staring at her. The intern on Cushion Two is texting with three of her friends and showing remarkable aptitude for keeping all three conversations distinct. The cubicle drone on Cushion Three is selecting the starting lineup for his fantasy football game against the friend of a friend whom he has never met in person, but with whom he has been messaging spiritedly about the game on the league’s online forum.

The threesome sit on their respective islands, but it’s no matter that the islands are deserted because they have open lines of communication to distant friends. They may be isolated in the physical world, but in the virtual world they find connections that bridge the gaps between deserted islands. We’ll pick up the threads of connection and isolation in chapters 2 and 3; for now, let’s think for a moment about the environment that the Tech has redesigned and the people like me who have never known any other environment.

We older Millennials (along with the last few GenXers) began blogging before blogging was even a word. On websites including LiveJournal and MySpace, we poured out all the mundane secrets, petty jealousies, and terrible poetry that used to belong to the private diary under lock and key. In the past, none of those words would have seen the light of day, but the Internet enticed us to divulge these confidences with an artificial promise of phony anonymity. Then older folks started warning us about our tendency to overshare on the Interwebs. “If you put something online, it can never be fully removed,” they said. We adopted the appropriate shocked expressions until they went away, and then we joined Facebook and found a sleek new interface through which to bare our souls.

We extol the benefits of social networking: friends’ birthdays right there on our profiles, reconnection with that old high school crush, the ability to organize a flash mob to re-create the Thriller music video in the middle of the mall! But only in the last few years has the danger inherent in social networking begun to sink in: the inevitability of sexted nude photos winding up on the Internet, the ability for robbers to pick easy targets based on Facebook vacation updates, the omnipresence of cyberbullies online, and the data mining that follows every clicked link.

Social networking has enabled and amplified trans-social behavior to such a degree that all definitions of privacy are being rewritten. Until recently, private, direct, personal communication dominated; now it is giving ground to wide-spectrum, impersonal communication that may be private in nature but is public in disclosure. (Think about professional athletes who trash-talk over Twitter rather than on the field or court.) Indeed, the Internet is essentially a public place; however, to many of us Tech users, Millennials especially, it sure looks private because we interact with the Web while alone. For a Millennial blogger like me, I need to keep a personal journal in a physical spiral notebook just to be sure I keep myself from revealing things on my blog that aren’t appropriate for public consumption.

The Tech has designed this public-disguised-as-private environment, and Tech users interact socially in this environment. What should be an individual’s private identity often has public access enabled. The opportunities inherent in sharing socially across boundaries of distance are tempered by the dangers of ceding too much of oneself to the virtual world. Following Jesus Christ involves locating our identities first and foremost in the God who breathes those identities into our very souls. If we allow too much of our identities to escape into the ether of the virtual world, there may not be enough left to escape into God.

The Rev. Adam Thomas, one of the first Millennials to be ordained priest, is the assistant to the rector at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Cohasset, Mass. He blogs at wherethewind.com.

Digital Disciple I: Virtual People

This is the first of three excerpts from Digital Disicple: Real Christianity in a Virtual World by Adam Thomas to be published May 2011 by Abingdon Press. You can purchase the book here.

By Adam Thomas

We call it an Internet “connection.” On any given day, I know that an acquaintance from high school just had a baby shower. I know that an old college friend chose the strappy sandals. I know who had one too many at a party last night. Through my keyboard, LED monitor, wireless router, and ISP, I’m connected to several layers of people—my close friends, my acquaintances, strangers with similar interests, and the hordes of people with spelling so dreadful it would make Noah Webster weep.

But we could just as easily call it an Internet “isolation.” While millions of little connections happen every day—from friends and relatives to subcultures and fan bases—these connections always happen remotely. I can see and hear people thousands of miles away using the warm box on my lap. But I can’t touch using Facebook. I can’t taste a friend’s tweets. And I sure can’t smell a Wikipedia entry. My senses are reduced by 60 percent. I have a contacts list on my Gmail account, but I rarely make contact. A wall of technology isolates me from you, and the more we use the Tech, the more comfortable we feel hiding behind it. We develop a dependence on what can only be described oxymoronically as remote intimacy.

Yes, we are connected, but more often than not we connect remotely. Yes, I may know your favorite bands and books, but I may never know the timbre of your voice or how heavy your footfalls are. Yes, community forms on the Internet, but how can you share a meal or look someone in the eye via an online forum?

I make the observations found in this book from a vantage point overlooking a pair of intersections. The first intersection occurs where the opposing forces of connection and isolation meet. These two forces have been around since the Garden of Eden, but never have they been as coupled as the Internet makes them. The second intersection occurs at the junction between Tech culture and the greater reality of following Jesus Christ our Lord.

Following Jesus Christ is first and foremost about connection, about the arms of love reaching from the cross to embrace everyone. The Word became flesh in Jesus Christ in order that we might see more clearly the connection that God yearns for us to have with one another and with God. The Internet offers wonderful opportunities for connection, but they always come attached with the danger of isolation. Like most things in this life, we can’t separate the danger from the opportunity; we can only hope to trend toward the opportunity while trying not to ignore the nature of the danger.

As the Internet continues to change the way we communicate and connect with one another, the opportunities and dangers grow increasingly intertwined. The trouble is that the speed of innovation has kept us from pausing, breathing deeply, and taking a hard look at technology’s effects on our lives. Consider that a hundred years ago, people dashed and dotted with the telegraph and wrote long correspondences in perfect cursive. Seventy-five years ago, they shared a phone line with half a dozen neighbors and sat in front of the radio in the evening. Fifty years ago, they had their own telephone numbers and televisions. Twenty-five years ago, mobile phones and personal computers had begun the big, boxy stage of their evolutions. Fifteen years ago, my computer spent an agonizing forty-five seconds doing a fuzzy R2-D2 impression while attempting to dial up a connection to the Internet. Ten years ago, my family got our hands on a shiny new piece of technology called a cable modem, and the connection tripled in speed. Today, broadband allows connections of ease and immediacy. The breadth and depth of content online have now matched the blazing download rate; indeed (and I’m saying this with only the slightest hyperbole), I could live my whole life virtually and never notice the lack of fresh air and exercise.

We communicate more quickly, more frequently, more globally (and often more anonymously) than ever before. The Internet, once a harebrained idea hatched in a military think tank, has pervaded our lives and our society. Removing it would be like amputating not an arm or a leg, but a central nervous system. I know I’m not alone when I confess that, while I don’t live my whole life virtually, I do almost everything online: shop, check baseball scores, read the news, watch TV, play games, chat with friends, research my sermons. I even met my wife through some combination of divine intervention and the Series of Tubes.

The Rev. Adam Thomas, one of the first Millennials to be ordained priest, is the assistant to the rector at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Cohasset, Mass. He blogs at wherethewind.com.

More Facebook for Lent!

By Jennifer McNally

There has been a slight but noticeable exodus from my Facebook home page since last Wednesday, the first day of this 2011 Lenten season. “I’m giving up Facebook for Lent, see you after Easter!” is the common theme of the farewell posts. And I’ve heard it preached not just a few times: “We are too distracted” and “We don’t make time for God because we’re too busy with email and Facebook”. This type of observation and these gentle admonishments are met in the congregations in which I sit with knowing smiles and nods and always at least one, “A-men!”

But, I don’t know. I think God loves Facebook.

Giving up Facebook is not the message I hear, when I sit with my God in meditation each morning. In fact, when I sit in the morning, turned toward the rising sun, my palms lifted up, my heart open, my breathing deep and steady, the call I hear is, “Go to Facebook, my beloved child.”

I fully understand the intent behind the “We are too distracted” sermons and reflections. It’s true; there is no getting around it. Email and social media and cell phones and texting can pull us out of The Moment. Am I present with my son if I am sitting with him but also texting with a friend? Not entirely, no. On the other hand, when my son and I giggle like crazy over a joke we’ve just shared and we decide to text Daddy with the same joke, and then to also include aunties and uncles and a few friends in our texting, well, there is all kinds of being present and connected right there. We are drawing our circle wide, and then wider. We are building community.

In the last year or so, my home church added our presence to Facebook. Church members joined in rapid succession and as a result I also gained new personal Facebook friends. These Facebook connections have brought much to our growth as a community. There is something about knowing someone only through Sunday morning worship that can be quite distancing. The older woman over there, the one in the matching pantsuit, carefully pressed, with pearls around her neck? I say hello to her every week, but I know I don’t have much in common with her. In fact, I know this so well, that I don’t make the time to engage in more than superficial conversation with her. Until Facebook. Thanks to the magic of Facebook, I now know this woman and I both get stupidly excited on the nights Glee is on television. And we strike up a conversation about it one Sunday morning, which leads to coffee, which leads to the discovery that we also love the same books, and music, and guess what? A friendship is born. And the new mother over there? The one who always looks serene and put together? Thanks to Facebook, I know she was up all night with a sick baby, and I know I should offer to watch her daughter for an hour today so she can nap. Suddenly, I have made a small difference in someone’s life.

Isn’t that what God wants us to do, ultimately? To understand how our lives overlap. There isn’t much that can happen on Facebook that won’t be seen by the masses. Isn’t that what God wants us to know? That we truly are all connected to each other. Time with our God is important. Time alone and in silence to fill our hearts with all that is good. But we are called, ultimately, to connect with one another.

“I’m giving up Facebook for Lent” can read, in a manner, as “I’m giving up staying connected to your life in order to focus on mine”. What if, instead, my status read, “I am going to take more of an interest in each and every one of you for Lent”? What if I encourage a friend to post a photo of her child on Facebook so I can share the smiling face she sees every morning? What if I ask a neighbor to post vacation photos so I can ooo and ahhh, and celebrate with them their time of rest and relaxation? Your dog woke you up at 5:00 am? Share with me, so I can say, “Hope you get a nap today!” Your daffodils are blooming? If your Facebook status lets me know, I will reply with, “Three cheers for hope and new life!”

It can feel like God’s work to me, dancing around Facebook with greetings and notes for family and friends near and far. Taking an interest in their lives. Spreading love.
We are called to see God in each other. We are called to be Christ to one another. I hear that call as “Be there for each other”. Not just in times of trouble, not just in times of celebration, but every day. When you’re having a regular, standard, run-of-the-mill Tuesday morning, God is there in that, and I want to be there, too. So go ahead and post “Regular ol’ Tuesday” as your Facebook status. I may respond, “Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

I think God would “like” that.

Jennifer S. McNally is a student at United Theological Seminary in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota.

The dark and light sides of social networking

By Ellen Painter Dollar

Do you Facebook?

The question comes up often in conversation these days, as a practical matter (“Can I keep in touch with you through Facebook?”) or a more significant marker of where people stand on the distinctly un-private world of social networking. Rutgers student Tyler Clementi posted his intention to jump off the GW Bridge on Facebook after a roommate filmed him in a romantic encounter with another man and publicized the video via Twitter. The role of social networking—its ability to erode privacy and magnify teenage prank-pulling and name-calling into something much more insidious—has been one of the hot news topics in the weeks following this tragedy. One of my fellow bloggers on Christianity Today’s women’s blog went so far as to hold Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg partly responsible for Clementi’s suicide.

Do I Facebook?

I do, but not without some trepidation. Many of us educated, busy working moms and dads seem slightly embarrassed by our immersion in the Facebook culture. We wonder if we’ve lost all sense of propriety, balance, and privacy. When I go a day or two without checking Facebook (a rare event), I feel oddly proud, like I do when I forego dessert or turn the TV off before the fourth episode in a Law and Order marathon. I feel like I’ve avoided something unhealthy, a bad habit that feeds my more unpleasant traits—narcissism, nosiness, self-righteousness.

But I go back anyway, for many small reasons (promoting my writing, keeping up with school and community news, mindless distraction when my head aches from an intense bout of writing) and one big reason. Facebook has been a rich and rewarding tool for staying connected (or becoming reconnected) with people whose presence in my life is a gift. Those who don’t understand the appeal of Facebook say, “If I wanted to keep in touch with people I knew 20 years ago, I would have.” But would they? Do they?

Before Facebook, I had superficial relationships with a number of people whose friendships had been central earlier in my life—college roommates and friends, coworkers from my early jobs, members of a young married couples’ group at the church I attended in my 20s. I generally knew what they were up to—where they were working, the names and ages of their kids—but that was it. By reconnecting with many of these friends via Facebook, I now know much more about them, and vice versa. Status updates describing daily events—good, bad, and run-of-the-mill—give us a real sense of what goes on day by day in each others’ homes, workplaces, and families. Facebook has transformed a handful of relationships from “annual Christmas card” level to a more significant level of regular give-and-take.

Because I post links to all my blog posts on Facebook, I have online conversations with old friends about the complex topics I write on—parenthood, disability, reproductive technology, genetics, chronic pain. When far-away friends are coping with illness, difficult parenting moments, or employment troubles, I know about it and can offer good wishes, advice, commiseration, and/or prayers. Facebook reconnected me with the friend, now an Episcopal priest, who introduced me to The Daily Episcopalian. When he posted on Facebook that his daughter broke her leg last year, I could send him all of the “toddler in a cast” advice I have from my family’s extensive experience with broken bones. Through Facebook, I have listened to one friend’s radio show in Atlanta, watched videos of commercials and movie trailers featuring my actress friend, and perused photos of teenagers whom I once held as newborns.

Facebook’s value for reigniting and stoking the flames of old friendships became especially clear last week. I was recently diagnosed with breast cancer—a non-invasive, treatable kind. Despite the good prognosis, getting a cancer diagnosis at age 42, when I still have a preschooler at home and an impending book deadline, has been overwhelming. I struggled with how to tell friends near and far. No, I didn’t post the news on Facebook; too many Facebook “friends” are acquaintances or professional contacts who don’t need a blow-by-blow of my family’s medical crises. I told local friends either in person or via personal e-mails, and sent one group e-mail to far-away friends.

I received several phone calls and return messages, including one from a college roommate. Because we were both camped at our computers that morning, we ended up having a real-time e-mail conversation, sending new messages immediately in response to the ones we received. Her words of support and sorrow were so pitch-perfect that I ended up in tears, and told her so. In a return message, she told me she had news too. She is divorcing the man she married at a Christmastime wedding as I stood by their side in my bridesmaid dress. As we exchanged more words of grief (“Getting old sucks!”) and hope (“I have a wonderful family and will get through this”) I was aware that this online conversation—this real, gritty, meaningful conversation—would not be happening if she and I hadn’t reconnected through Facebook.

Online contact doesn’t replace personal contact. Our twentieth college reunion was coming up that weekend and my roommate would be there, while I would not. Our exchange made me even more hungry for an in-person visit than I was before. Social networking can enhance relationships, but it can’t replace the pleasure of talking with an old friend over dinner.

Social networking is one of many modern phenomena for which we don’t have clear guidance from Scripture. But there are hints of how we might approach it. We can follow Paul’s advice to think on those things that are life-giving and substantial over those that are distracting and destructive (e.g., Phillipians 4:8). The temptation to post clever status updates as a way to draw attention to my intelligence, wit, and the obvious rightness of my political persuasion, or to poke fun at opposing viewpoints, is real; I have succumbed to it now and then. Facebook certainly leads people to overshare, posting details of their lives that are either overly intimate or overly mundane. (My personal pet peeve: Parents who give play-by-play descriptions of a stomach virus making its way through their family. I have three kids. Trust me; I know how that goes.) Allowing Facebook to be a tool for relationship-building instead of a distraction requires humility, self-discernment, and discretion—qualities that are fostered by spiritual disciplines, honest relationships, self-examination, and confession, not by spending hours in online conversations consisting solely of clever one-liners.

Jesus lived in a way that celebrated intimate relationships but maintained boundaries between public and private. His life was structured around time spent in community—eating, working, preaching, and talking with his closest friends and strangers he met along the way. While Jesus challenged people, he didn’t air their dirty laundry. He spoke to the woman at the well about her adulterous liaisons; he didn’t climb on the nearest mountaintop to joke or preach at her expense. When he needed to, he separated himself from the crowd to give attention to his own spiritual and physical health. Jesus lived a very public life, but always with a focus on transforming relationships, not on trumpeting slick slogans selling his world view or exploiting the intimate details of his own or other people’s lives. I’m convinced that social networking can be a tool for intimacy as well as a temptation to use others for our own purposes.

One response to Tyler Clementi’s and other suicides is the “It Gets Better” video project, through which high-profile gay and lesbian men and women are telling teenagers struggling with their sexual identity to have hope. In the words of New Hampshire Bishop Gene Robinson, “God wants you to live in the light of God’s love and that light will take away all of this darkness…God loves you beyond your wildest imagining.”

Where is that hopeful message being shared, over and over and over, where it will surely be heard and embraced by a few despairing young men and women? On Facebook.

As with most human inventions, Facebook can foster intimacy or alienation, compassion or cruelty, substance or stupidity. The challenge is to use it for the former and avoid the temptation to participate in the latter. Facebook is no more to blame for Tyler Clementi’s suicide than the GW Bridge is. But we still have a responsibility to foster online communities marked by respect and appropriate boundaries, to use Facebook and other online tools as instruments of the light and not the dark.

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer whose work focuses on faith, parenthood and disability. She is writing a book on the ethics and theology of reproductive technology, genetic screening and disability, and she blogs at Choices That Matter and Five Dollars and Some Common Sense.

Here by God's invitation

By R. William Carroll

I have a confession to make. Perhaps to some of you it won’t appear to be a confession so much as a brazen attempt to bolster my street cred with other nerds. But here it is: as a teenager, I loved to read science fiction. I wish I could say I read only the good stuff. But I read schlocky, hokey stuff too. Occasionally, in a moment of regression, I still do. But I don’t have much time for that these days. If I’m lucky, I see the movie instead.

One of the books I wish they’d make a movie about is Piers Anthony’s Split Infinity. The story is about a man named Stile. Stile is a serf on planet Proton, a planet where the citizens are incredibly wealthy because they control the galaxy’s supply of fuel for interstellar travel. There’s also a parallel magical universe, from which the book takes its title, but that’s not what interests me. What fascinates me about the book is what it refers to as “the Game.” Stile excels at the Game, which is actually an infinite number of tests of physical and mental prowess, as well as games of chance, overseen by a giant computer. In the Game, serfs and citizens compete together. There is a whole culture of gambling built around it. The Game is the great equalizer. In fact, Stile eventually wins the “tournament,” with its coveted prize, citizenship.

The story resonates with me, I think, because it coheres with some of the deep myths about America—myths which are just true enough to capture our imagination and just false enough to leave us restless and unsatisfied, wanting something more. The Game connects with our deep, abiding belief in equality and social mobility. It is the stuff of Horatio Alger novels. The Game is the guy who works his way up from the mailroom and marries the boss’s daughter, only to take over the whole company. It is Anne Hathaway, being raised by a single mother, suddenly discovering that she is, in fact, a princess. It is Julia Roberts, the hooker with a heart of gold, being swept off the streets by Richard Gere. (I apologize for the problematic gender politics, but that’s the way this particular story often gets told.)

The Game is like the lottery and reality T.V. shows, as well as our belief that any one of our children could grow up to be president. (How many adults still believe that about themselves?) In a society like ours, there is both an unprecedented degree of social mobility and the lie, reinforced by a great deal of denial, that we are all somehow middle class. The Game is our belief that, if we hit tough times, we can all pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. It is both the best and the worst thing about the American people. We are incredibly tough, creative, and resourceful, but we are also unaware of our real limitations.

Now I wouldn’t trade the positive side of the American dream for anything, but I do have to ask us how it might be transformed by the Gospel. Perhaps, if we looked more closely at today’s Gospel, we might rediscover forgotten parts of our heritage as Americans. Maybe it would call us back to interdependence, sacrifice, and seeking the common good. Our ancestors lived these values out through cold New England winters, in urban ghettoes, reservations, and pioneer farming communities. They exemplified these values during the fight for Independence, the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the Civil Rights movement. They struggled together side by side in Grange Halls, picket lines, and churches.

In the parable of the wedding feast, which we heard earlier this month, we learn that the invited guests are not all respectable people. If the ministry of Jesus provides any clue, they include tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners. They are certainly not only the people who “work hard and play by the rules.” None of them has earned a place at the table. They aren’t even the first round draft choices. Rather, they are only invited at the last minute, when the real guests—the red carpet people— send in their regrets. What does the king say? “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” And so his slaves go, and they gather all they find, both good and bad alike, that the hall might be filled with guests.

In God’s Kingdom, we have no status, except that which is given us by our host. We have no privilege, save what is conferred by God’s mercy. We are invited into the Kingdom only because we are the kind of needy, broken, imperfect people who would come when God called. Some few of us may be winners by the world’s standards, but even those are filled with doubts and fears. The rest of us, frankly, are losers. The victory that assures us of citizenship in the Kingdom is not our own—but GOD’s.

We see God’s Kingdom lived out, week by week, in the Eucharist. From ancient times, this meal has been seen as an anticipation of the heavenly banquet. Here, all kinds of people, bad and good, all are gathered together. If you don’t believe me, take a look around you! In the Kingdom of God, all kinds of people are welcome. Constantly, they feast together at God’s abundant Table. One of the Church fathers, John Chrysostom, put the matter this way:

“Week by week you come to the Lord's table to receive bread and wine. What do these things mean to you? Do you regard them merely as some kind of spiritual medicine, which will purge your soul, like a laxative may purge your body? Or do you sometimes wonder what God is saying in these simple elements? Bread and wine represent the fruits of our labor, whereby we turn the things of nature into food and drink for our sustenance. So at the Lord's table we offer our labor to God, dedicating ourselves anew to his service. Then the bread and the wine are distributed equally to every member of the congregation; the poor receive the same amount as the rich. This means that God's material blessings belong equally to everyone, to be enjoyed according to each person's need. The whole ceremony is also a meal at which everyone has an equal place at the table.”

Brothers and sisters, this is our mission as the Church, to create a foretaste of God’s coming Kingdom. This lies at the heart of one of our baptismal vows, which we often use as an informal mission statement in the parish I serve: “Seeking and serving Christ in all people.”

We seek and find Jesus, and God’s Kingdom draws near, whenever we welcome the new friends God sends our way, including them in the life of our community of faith. We seek and find Jesus, and God’s Kingdom draws near, whenever we feed the hungry, house the homeless, or clothe the naked. We seek and find Jesus, and God’s Kingdom draws near, whenever we speak out for the voiceless and stand in solidarity with those who have none but God for their helper.

Beloved, we are the Church, because, in Jesus, God’s joy has entered our world. And we, even though we are not worthy, we (even we ourselves!) have been invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb.

The table is spread. The invitation is God’s. And ALL are welcome here!

The Rev. R. William Carroll serves as rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio (Diocese of Southern Ohio). He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. He co-edits The Covenant Journal with Lane Denson.

Holy ground in cyberspace

By Ann Fontaine

Seven years ago the Diocese of Wyoming's Canon for Ministry Development, Lynn Wilson, wondered if we could offer Education for Ministry (EfM) via the internet to our isolated and rural churches and their leaders. I have been a mentor and trainer with EfM since the early days of the program. This was a challenge I could not resist. How could we replicate this small group experience with its transformative theological reflection and study? Dr. Norm Peterson, a mentor and Dean of Education at the University of Wyoming and I recruited our first class of students for a pilot project with Blackboard, the popular distance education program that most colleges use.

I thought it would be possible to carry out the program but did not believe it would be as good as face-to-face EfM. I could not have been more wrong. Now the online groups are spreading around the country with students from as far away as South Africa, Bahrain and Korea. Originally we thought it would be great for rural isolated students. We have discovered that it is great for those who travel for work, those who live in cities and don’t want one more night out, those who have children at home and snowbirds. The intimacy and depth of sharing is beyond my dreams. When we do find time to see each other in person – we are like old friends.

Other EfM Online mentors have had similar experiences. Jenifer Gamber, Diocese of Bethlehem, finished her 4th year in an online group then became a mentor. She writes:

Who could have predicted the impact the decentralized network of the internet would have by connecting individuals separated by thousands of miles, history, culture, and much more? One of the greatest joys of participating in EfM Online for the past three years has been hearing the stories and insights with people from all over the United States who have vastly different experiences. My first year one of the participants joined from her mission work in Brazil. A participant from Mississippi shared first-hand experience of the effects of hurricane Katrina. Even seemingly mundane differences, for example, the weather, (snowing in Casper, WY but 70 degrees in Bethlehem, PA in May) enriched our time together because we came to know how our differences provided both opportunity for seeking commonalities and for treasuring a diversity that deepened our understanding of God's work in the world.

Paradoxically, our separated-ness has created a kind of intimacy has provided a place for deep sharing. Perhaps it is from a deep yearning for connection or the safety of cyber boundaries. We have shared at deep levels of vulnerability and tenderness.

Another joy of EfM Online has been sustained conversations about our readings. Because we post reflections to our weekly readings on a discussion board, we have many days to consider one another's contributions before responding ourselves. It's like having a living, yet suspended, conversation. Issues of faith matter deeply; our conversations challenge and confirm; they sometimes present one with new ways of thinking and time to consider how to understand new ideas in light of my experience and positions.

A student from South Africa, in a group mentored by Kathy Araujo in Oregon, writes:

I've spent a big chunk of the weekend going back through all our postings in all the various threads this year--a big advantage over the face-to-face format, where all one has to rely on is memory and perhaps some journal entries.

Two big things jump out at me. First, I am struck by how much my reflections have been shaped by where I am and by my ex-pat experience. This is a distinct difference from the prior three years. …The fact that we were each coming to our EfM year from different places in the world, different places in our lives, and different points on our spiritual journey was probably the single most enriching aspect of this year for me.

The second thing that just zoomed off the screen for me was that at some point or another, every single one of us said to another one of us some variation on "you made me think" or "I need to give that some thought" or "I had never noticed that before" or "I've never thought of it that way" or "that comment changed me."

A student living in Korea, who finished the program in a group mentored by Jo Freeman, writes:

I am humbled and thankful that I could have the opportunity to complete EFM. I began in a TEE (Theological Education by Extension...as Sewanee called it then) class in the early 1980s. When I came to Korea I thought my chance of finishing might never come because there were no live EFM groups in Korea. I was so excited to find EFM online!

This year EFM has meant so much to me. Because of our studies, our reflections, our sharing, having to do the hard introspective work of writing the Spiritual Autobiography and other explorations of ministry, I now see my purpose, my world, my ministry and relationships in a much different way. There is new meaning and passion...and a heightened sense of how I am already following God's call for me.... and how I can continue to grow into what the next phase might be. I am so grateful to this program and to you for "herding us cats", and for your expert way of leading us into how to do TR.

Canada is using the program for its long distances and need for connection. The average age of participants in EfM Online is lower than traditional groups. More and more people are becoming familiar with online classes and use of technology to connect with others around the world. One student mentioned she would like to start a group in Second Life. Possibilities for community continue to grow.

Attention to relationships and guidelines for interaction are even more important in the online environment. Since we cannot see or hear each other we have to take care of what we say and let each other know when we are hurting or joyful. Body language is non-existent so we develop ways to compensate. On the other hand – signs that might create barriers like how people are dressed or how they look do not exist either. I am often asked how we can build community when we are never together in “real” – I say “come and see.”

The Rev. Ann Fontaine, Diocese of Wyoming, keeps the blog what the tide brings in. She is the author of Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on the Bible.

Advent podcasts

By Susan Fawcett

This Advent, you may spend time each day with the daily readings. You may have a devotional book of some sort. You may light the candles on an Advent wreath. Or, you might just find yourself plugging in your iPod.

Last year, a group of young priests, recent graduates from Virginia Theological Seminary, created daily Advent podcasts. The Rev. Lonnie Lacy and the Revs. Casey and Melody Shobe came up with the idea.

Lonnie explains: "When I was in college, only 7 or 8 years ago, we didn't have iPods. Walking across campus, you'd pass people and say hello. Everyone was engaged with one another. But now that I'm on this large campus as a chaplain, everybody walks around with their iPods on and their earbuds in. It struck me as an opportunity because I thought, if people are walking around so isolated because they've got the earbuds in and they're not engaging one another or the world-maybe we can put out some good content that would challenge them to think about what it does mean to engage the world."

Additionally, communicating a spiritual message through a tech-savvy platform meets people where they already are. "We wanted to create something that would be relevant and accessible, to fit into daily life and work," said Melody Shobe. Lonnie agreed. "These podcasts are an attempt to integrate the holy into our daily lives and activities. Driving to Walmart isn't in itself a holy experience. But to invite God with you, to try to shape your perspective in a way that is absolutely contrary to the way Walmart shapes our perspective, IS a holy exercise. There is nothing wrong in the world with people trying to integrate the holy into their everyday ordinary activities."

Just 5-7 minutes long, with a focus on a brief segment of the daily readings from Lesser Feasts and Fasts, and always including some piece of contemporary music, the 'Devo-to-Go' podcasts were available on iTunes. The creators got very positive feedback, and expanded their base of contributors for a Lenten podcast series. By the end of Lent, their listenership was up to 600 people. "What blew my mind," Lonnie said, "is that we had listeners in Japan and South Africa; they must have found it via iTunes. I felt like we were just a bunch of kids playing with headphones and computers. But the fact is that we give these 7-minute glimpses into what life can be life in the midst of a culture that is becoming more isolated. So it's a gift."

Melody said that, as opposed to preaching, podcasting "gives me the freedom to have a little more fun-to be a little more creative in how I respond to a text. It's partially the anonymity of it-I can tell a story about my childhood that I might feel a little less comfortable saying in a worship setting. It's the distance that technology gives." Lonnie added that podcasting can be a surprisingly more intimate medium than preaching: "You're talking right into someone's ear. So, writing for a podcast is more like trying to share something intimate with a close friend, rather than trying to shape the hearts and minds of a large group of people."

Casey Shobe, another of the original creators of Devo-to-Go, said that "As the weeks of Advent went on, the effort of writing and mixing the podcasts became a sort of spiritual practice in itself. It was very fulfilling that something that spoke to my personal spiritual life was then able to speak to others and help them experience the seasons of Advent and Lent."

With an expanded list of over a dozen writers, clergy and lay, from all over
the country, the Devo-To-Go podcasts will be available again this Advent at several locations, including the Diocese of Washington’s online Advent calendar, and on iTunes.

"I think that this exercise has been a good example of how much the young clergy of our church have to offer, both to the church and to the world," Melody said. "Most of the contributors are under 30 years old, and their work is definitely quality. I listened to every one and was fed by every one. It was a gift that the young clergy of the church have given me. It's a reminder that experience isn't the only voice that has to speak; the fresh
perspective and enthusiasm and passion that we have to offer is important too."

Preach it, sister.

The Rev. Lonnie Lacy serves as Episcopal Chaplain to Georgia Southern University and the Assistant Rector at Trinity Episcopal Church, Statesboro, GA. The Rev. Casey Shobe is the Priest Associate, Christ Church Cathedral, Houston, Texas. The. Rev. Melody Wilson Shobe is the Assistant to the Rector at St. Thomas the Apostle Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas. The Rev. Susan Fawcett keeps the blog This Passage. She serves a parish the Diocese of Virginia, and supports the work of the General Convention publication The Center Aisle.

Facing the Facebook world

By Kit Carlson

Yes, I got a Facebook page. I really shouldn't have one. I'm not in the proper generation (I'm at the tail end of the Baby Boom, and age 50 is looming into view). My kids, who ARE in the proper generation -- Milliennials -- have told me repeatedly that Facebook is their world and that I should stay out.

But one of the Michigan State students who is part of the campus ministry here asked me over the summer if I had a page, saying it would be easier for us to do some church business if I did. And I discovered that Facebook has opened its membership to anyone. It has become indiscriminately welcoming. I signed up. My kids shrieked in horror.

For those not in the know, Facebook is a social networking site like My Space, or Xanga, where one builds a page that then links to one's friends' pages. You can send each other virtual gifts, report on your social life, write on each other's "walls" (which are spaces for public messages) or send each other private emails. Developers continue to create all kinds of applications for Facebook pages, including interactive webs that show how all your friends are connected, a map of all the places you've ever been, links to your iTunes library, movie knowledge quizzes, and many, many, many virtual wars between pirates and ninjas, zombies and werewolves, and it goes on and on and on.

So I got my Facebook page, and immediately found myself surrounded by "so great a cloud of witnesses." My colleagues, far-flung friends, fellow clergy, and former professors also have Facebook pages. My seminary, Virginia Theological Seminary, has a page. Episcopal Cafe has a page. Our MSU Canterbury group has a page. There are groups for Episcopal clergy and Anglican clergy. There is a group for folks who like the Christian humor site Ship of Fools. There are the groups "There are no Episcopalians down in hell ... hell, no!" and "Episcopalians drink real wine." There is my favorite group, "Praise bands annoy God."

And through it all runs the interlocking, organic web of "friends." Facebook friends can be people you really know and really love ... I can be connected with my friends and former colleagues back in Maryland, send them little notes, share pictures, and check in with them quickly and easily. Facebook friends can be people you only know by name ... some of my fellow Episcopal Cafe contributors are now my Facebook friends, and I can see their pictures and begin to envision them as three-dimensional human beings. Facebook friends can be colleagues you haven't met yet. At our recent Michigan clergy conference, it was fun to meet people IRL (in real life) who were previously just Facebook friends. I have a Facebook friend who used to be a parishioner at my church, but who moved away before I arrived here. A few of my parishioners are my Facebook friends. My nephew in Italy is my Facebook friend. My best friend back in Maryland is my Facebook friend. My crazy hiking lady friends, who are scattered through four states, are my Facebook friends.

And yes, my kids, ages 20 and 18, did become my Facebook friends too. I try not to abuse the privilege. I rarely look at their pages. I refuse to let their friends friend me. I also do not friend youth members of any of my parishes, current or previous. Facebook was their world first. I try not to horn in. And because Facebook is, in the end, a public venue, I try not to post anything that would embarrass my children, my IRL friends or my parish.

But for me, the arrival of Facebook into my life has broadened my vision. I am able to see my colleagues across the church, working to serve the people of God. I am able to hear different voices, share different experiences of faith. I am able to play with my friends at a distance, remembering that life and the church are not always such deadly serious things. I have prayed over my friend list from time to time, holding them in my heart in the presence of God.

Facebook for me has become a foretaste ... of the heavenly banquet, of the great gathering at the throne of God that will be the culmination of all things. It is a visual and virtual reminder to me that we are all connected in ways we don't even envision, friends at a distance, friends nearby, each of us on a journey through life. Facebook reminds me that it is ultimately a journey shared.

The Rev. Kit Carlson, is the rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in East Lansing, Mich. In 2003, she played the apostle Paul on the world's first internet reality series, The Ark, a project of the Christian humor website Ship of Fools.

G-forces shaking up the Church and the world

By Kit Carlson

Forces are at play in our world and in our church, and one of the best assessments I have heard lately of those forces came from a community reform expert. Peter Plastrik, co-author of Banishing Bureaucracy and The Reinventors’ Fieldbook, spoke recently at a training session for community leaders in East Lansing, Michigan. He outlined five forces, five “Gs”, that are affecting communities across America.

As he spoke, it struck me that these forces are the same ones affecting our church.

Plastrik’s “Five G’s” are:

Grand Rapids – as a metaphor for the global economy. The internet, easy international travel, and the ability to move jobs anywhere in the world have changed the economies of communities once based on manufacturing and local enterprises.

Goat meat – as a metaphor for immigration and all the challenges it brings. Consumption of goat meat in the U.S. has skyrocketed as immigrants from countries that eat goat arrive, bringing their national cuisines with them.

Greenland – as a metaphor for global warming. The ice on this large Arctic island is vanishing, and with climate change comes a host of new challenges for each community.

Gay people – as a metaphor for all the cultural challenges surrounding gender, age, and sexuality.

Geoffrey Canada – creator of the Harlem Children’s Zone, a community-based organization that seeks to serve 9,000 children, providing support from birth through college. Canada serves as a metaphor for self-empowered citizens, who don’t wait for government or other institutions to solve community problems.

A member of the audience added a sixth “G”, the Graying of America, as the long-promised demographic shift of the Baby Boom into old age begins at last.

Plastrik’s “G-forces” made a lot of sense to me. When people ask, “What is happening to our church?” they often think in terms of political movements -- liberals versus conservatives, progressives versus traditionalists. Instead, one might look at the power of these forces, playing out in the parishes and dioceses and provinces of The Episcopal Church and of the Anglican Communion.

G-1: The worldwide Anglican Communion was not so prominent 30 years ago. As the global economy has taken shape, a global Communion emerged in prominence and consideration along with it. And just as a global economy knows no borders, ecclesiastical relationships that cross borders and jurisdictions follow the same pattern of connections that criss-cross the planet and minimize the importance of local communities.

G-2: Rapid immigration into the United States brought Anglicans from around the world into American parishes. No longer is Anglican worship uniform across The Episcopal Church. Inculturation has come to us, and so we sing from many traditions, read scripture in other languages, practice Pentecost every day of the church year. The values and expectations of other cultures become part of our conversations about sex, worship, politics and a host of other issues.

G-3: The churches of the Gulf Coast still recovering from Katrina understand how climate change can affect our churches and communities. There is more to come, and Bishop Charles Jenkins of Louisiana has already seen it coming. His call for the church to focus on ministries of relief and development instead of on schism and division comes out of hard experience.

G-4: There is not much to say that hasn’t been said about the cultural challenges of inclusion and acceptance of GBLT people. Joan Chittister said it best perhaps … the Anglicans just got to the issue earlier than most.

G-5: Self-empowered citizens, entrepreneurial community activists … the church is full of them. Duncan, Iker, Minns and those who would develop an alternate structure are entrepreneurs in their way. Why wait for the agonizingly slow movement of the Communion and its provinces to address Windsor, gay bishops, a Covenant, or any other issue? Why not set up one’s own alternative diocese, alternative province, alternative Communion?

Finally, there is that sixth G-force, one that Plastrik dismissed as not of interest to him. But the Graying of America, the graying of the Episcopal Church, is a real force. As I look across the faces of my parish, I see a community that has failed to effectively share the gospel with the generations coming after it. There are faithful elders and faithful Boomers … most of whom have grown children who do not themselves attend church, who are not raising the grandchildren in any faith, and who have abandoned religion as irrelevant. The leading edge of the church is dying off, and it is not replenishing itself.

And so the question is probably not – what to do about gay bishops or authorized rites of blessing. The question is really: How will we navigate these powerful forces? In a global, migratory, entrepreneurial, aging, culturally conflicted, climactically threatened world … how are we going to be Church? How will we proclaim the good news of Christ in the face of forces beyond our control?

The Rev. Kit Carlson, is the rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in East Lansing, Mich. In 2003, she played the apostle Paul on the world's first internet reality series, The Ark, a project of the Christian humor website Ship of Fools.

A Proverb for bloggers

By Marshall Scott

So there I was, today, looking in at one of the Episcopal blogs -- one of THOSE blogs. You know the type: issues are raised by blog owners and moderators, who do have a clear position, but who are themselves relatively orderly and polite. Then, extensive comments are posted, most by folks who agree with the owners and moderators; some by folks who agree intemperately; and a few by folks who are, well, virulent. I do visit such sites, of more than one position, and some more than others; but they exist across the spectrum of our current Episcopal and Anglican disagreements.

And for each of those sites there are a few respondents who don’t fit the mold. They may hold the “other” position, or they may simply want to play [angel’s or devil’s] advocate. And among them there are gadflies. Gadflies are usually civil (and uncivil gadflies usually get moderated out), but are always both consistent and persistent. They are convicted of the rightness of their respective causes, principles, and authorities. They assert much more than they reason, however reasonable they perceive themselves to be. They are happy, or at least determined, to stand as Daniel in the lions’ den in order to proclaim their positions. They delight in taking on all comers. They find moral satisfaction in being challenged, and even more in being attacked; for blessed are they indeed if they “suffer for the sake of the Gospel.”

And, predictably enough, it does indeed become a den, although whether of lions, foxes, or adders is not always clear. A gadfly is inevitably successful in generating not simply challenge and discussion, but also an attack. Shortly some few of the regulars on the site fall into intemperate and uncivil posts, largely of thinly veiled (if veiled at all) ad hominem attacks. There are those, of course, who seek to discuss and to argue logically and civilly; but they can be drowned out by the volume if not the number of the more personal, less temperate responses. And those less temperate responses are less likely to be moderated away, because the moderator is so conscious of the suffering that has led the responder to speak truth, however intemperately.

So, there I was today, looking at one of those Episcopal blogs, and I was struck suddenly by my favorite verses from Proverbs:

[4] Answer not a fool according to his folly,
lest you be like him yourself.
[5] Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own eyes.
(Proverbs 26:4-5, RSV)


I looked at how the discussion had descended into diatribe and distraction, and I suddenly wondered what I was to do. Should I put my two cents in, trying to reason against the assertions of the gadfly? If I did, would I be associating myself with the intemperance of the intemperate responders? Should I refrain, and allow both the assertions of the gadfly and the virulence of the intemperate to stand unchallenged for both had gone beyond reason? What to do?

I spent Saturday of Labor Day Weekend in the midst of a cultural experience. Specifically, I attended my first feis, my first Irish dancing competition. My niece made her first parent-less trip to come and compete. Family members outnumbered dancers in the room, but they faded from view, overwhelmed by the colorful riot of dancing dresses. They showed every color in the crayon box (although there is surprisingly little green and, less surprisingly, even less orange), decorated as they were with shapes and patterns that once showed family and tribe and allegiance.

In a way, the current Episcopal and Anglican discussions have all the ordered chaos of a feis: within the parameters of the larger event there is the dull mutter of the crowded room, the mingling of hundreds of conversations, until someone calls a tune. Then, for a period there is great focused interest, as most in the room watch the competitors doing their very best to outdo one another in optimizing the balance of authentic choreography, competent performance, and that little bit of added presentation that might hold the attention of the judge. After that there is applause for all, or at least for one’s own; and impatient waiting to see who has outdone whom; and a return to the dull mutter. There will, of course, be some ranking at the end, and some competitors will be thrilled and some disappointed, and their respective families with them. But most present simply want to have danced well, and to have heard their efforts appreciated.

In parallel, we who want to take our own places in this discussion, have opportunities in the blogosphere (and elsewhere, certainly) to share our reflections and to see the reflections of others. At our best, we’re also trying to optimize a balance of authenticity, competence, and that little bit of added presentation that we hope will allow us to stand out a bit. Most of the time as a common enterprise I think we manage relatively well; but sometimes it isn’t any prettier for us than for the poor, unprepared dancer. And in all those situations, there are the colors and patterns of opinion that claim family and tribe and allegiance. It is in just those circumstances that we need to think about the passage from Proverbs: whether our participation will challenge foolishness, or simply contribute to it.

It’s September; and there are those who have seen events of this September, and of the Autumn to follow, as critical, literally as moments of crisis. There is much talk of deadlines and decisions, of imposition and resistance, of the standing and falling of many in Zion. Because I continue to think these are struggles for identity (and I do think it’s about identity, with such issues as sexual morality and Biblical authority and historical precedent being discriminators within the identities at issue), they’re all the more liable to be personal, ad hominem responses. I think Episcopal Café is one place that has worked hard to maintain discourse instead of dissonance; and while most of us who write here would be considered “progressive,” we have all sought to offer our best, and to offer the best of the Episcopal Church as we see it.

But out there in the rest of the blogosphere, on our own blogs and in responding to the blogs of others, I think we need to reflect on Proverbs. We believe the voices of the Net are meaningful and in some sense representative in Episcopal and Anglican discussions. We believe them part of the conversation, along with sermons and official statements and press releases. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be putting our own view out, and we wouldn’t be reading and responding to the voices of others. As we do so, let’s think carefully, and respond appropriately. The lessons from Proverbs should give us all pause; and if they don’t, there is always that other proverb: “Better to be silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a chaplain in the Saint Luke’s Health System, a ministry of the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.

Faithspaces

By Helen Thompson

I've recently become fascinated with home improvement shows on HGTV, especially those that talk about fixing up a place on the cheap. Sometimes, it faintly reminds me of watching MacGyver when I was a teenager. They make household furniture out of paper clips and dry ice while window treatments created from repurposed cheese doodles really make that room pop! For those of you not familiar with these shows, they use a tricky technique to make sure you don't change the channel between room makeovers—they don't put a commercial break between shows. Vroom! You're hooked!

Just imagine what they could do for the vestry on a budget—new classy storage solutions for those nametags, stylish literature holders made from magazine holders spray-painted to resemble stained glass, and let's not forget the crown moulding chair rail with the two-tone paint job in the narthex. Woo hoo!

We're not strangers to changing floor plans. Full disclaimer: I was out of the church for 15 years. When I came back, many of the churches I went to had moved the altar forward and brought the Gospel into the aisles. And despite being completely churchless for a decade and a half, I had a typically Anglican response: I just really didn't know how I felt about all that. But then, over time, I realized that these changes were meant to bring the Gospel and the Eucharist closer to me.

Another makeover that had taken place while I was gone was that the Peace had become more like a farmer's market, with people wandering the aisles and chattering amongst each other, sometimes spending more time in this little walkabout than they did listening to the rector's homily. I'd just sit there staring and feeling lost. I still do, to a certain extent because my constant moves and frequent weekend travel are balanced by a solid attachment to my internet faithspaces, making me something of a technomadic parishioner rather than a truly peripatetic one. The Peace, to me, has become an exercise in overcoming mild social anxiety. And I'm going through it again, having just moved to a new town with a wonderful church where the Peace doesn't walk about as much and the Gospel is still read from the pulpit. And I find I miss the new stuff. You know how it is: how many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb? (Everyone, all together now, clap your hands to your cheeks like you're Home Alone and shriek, "CHAAAANNGGE??!")

But, see, that's what is so wonderful about the Church. I leave it for many years and come back to find it's grown with me, so much so that I'm staying put. And while the rest of the communion squabbles and dickers over who's sleeping with whom, I rest comfortably in the knowledge that I can sit comfortably between the Buddha and Paul, or between my conservative cousin and my aunt in the "unconventional" relationship, between my mistrustful-of-religion fiancé and my high-Anglican priestly friends. No matter whether I'm in an old stone country church or a contemporary worship structure or a coffeeshop with my emergent pals or the National Cathedral on a bright spring morning, no matter whether this week's faithspace has had an extreme makeover, churchified edition, or involves being somewhere sliding down a rock face near the Potomac River, no matter how the seasons or the scenery or the steeples change, I'm still the one who comes through the doors—literal and metaphorical—and can barely catch my breath for all the beauty that surrounds me.

Thank you, God.

Helen Thompson, known on the faithblogging circuit as Gallycat, is a writer living in the northern Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. She has written for the Philadelphia City Paper, RevGalBlogPals, Geez magazine and others. Visit her on the web at Gallycat's Lounge.


Baptizing technology

By Nick Knisely

I’ve been fascinated for years by technology and the way humanity uses it to solve problems. So not surprisingly, when I became a priest in the Episcopal Church, I found myself wondering a lot about how the Church and its mission are being molded by our changing technology.

This idea that the Church is molded by technology may seem counter-intuitive to those who are familiar with the rhythm and shape of our worship services. Much of what happens on Sundays and the special days of the church year is rooted in antiquity (and occasionally anachronism). The white robes we wear on such occasions are descended from the roman toga that was last worn commonly at least a thousand years ago. The bread and the wine are descended from Hebrew practices from a time three thousand or so years before that. And yet, the structure of modern church and its daily life (and worship life) are what they are in large part out of reaction to and because of technological innovations.

I’m not thinking about the Internet or the rise of the new media when I say this. Rather I’m thinking about the innovation that technology brings and the changes that happen to daily life as a result. For example, I can argue that the Church in the United States is still learning to come to terms with the fundamental changes that cars—and more importantly freeways—have brought to our culture.

Though I’ve not done the research to say this conclusively, my instincts tell me that the numerical decline of the Episcopal Church relative to the population of the United States is due in large measure to the fact that our parishes are still mostly in urban centers, but many of our parishioners (historically speaking) have migrated to the suburbs and exurbs. The denominations that have grown explosively in the past four or five decades are ones that have moved aggressively to plant new congregations with LARGE parking lots which cater to a motoring and mobile society better than a large downtown building with no parking and few bathrooms. Because the Episcopal Church has, by and large, been slow off the mark in responding to population migration we’ve declined and they’ve grown. (It has less to do with theological orientation than many people think, though the fact that more theologically conservative denominations are also often more evangelistically-oriented and more committed to new church starts has to be recognized.)

In other words, the numerical decline of the Episcopal Church may be caused as much by changing technology and our inability to respond to it as it is anything else. I wouldn’t be surprised if a shift of similar proportions wasn’t upon the church now as well.

As technology makes it easier for business and industry to customize their products for to the taste and needs of individuals, those same individuals are coming to expect the same sort of customization in the rest of their lives and from their faith. The rise of Gods carefully crafted in our image is less a result of a rising tide of selfishness and narcissism than it is a direct consequence of a person’s everyday experience of what has come to be normal. In a society saturated with messages that proclaim “Have it your way!”, why should we expect people to instinctively understand that learning to be accountable to a community and to God by dying to self is going to be the path to Truth and happiness? And yet, paradoxically dying to self is the way to true happiness and part of our mission as catholic Christians is to show that it is just so.

I don’t believe however that the solution is to loudly decry the rise of individualism in the West, or to point fingers at people whom we decide are acting selfishly. The interactions between society, religion and technological innovation are much too subtle and deep to expect such tactics be successful. The good news though, is that we have in our treasure an antidote. We have the ability to see the world through the eyes of people from different cultures and from different times.

The same technology that allows us to “narrow-cast” information to small sub-groups of people, can also make it possible for us to hear the voices of the sorts of people we might never have encountered before. It’s no longer remarkable that we can read in real-time the words of people who live in war zone. We can see, for instance, the horror of war directly without having it filtered by our society’s own lenses. Learning to see our own actions through the eyes of others makes it a great deal easier for us to truly love our others as ourselves—because technology allows us to become their neighbors.

But frankly, more importantly, we have in our treasure a gift that will allow us to see ourselves not just in the eyes of others, but in the eyes of God. The lessons that we have in the Bible, the collected experiences of the God’s people over thousands of years and the stories and teachings of Jesus give us a timeless perspective upon our own lives. And I think it’s that perspective that can allow us to be proactive and not reactive in the way that we use technology.

I’d frankly much rather we started being proactive. Learning to intentionally manage the changes that innovation is bringing is the first step to our re-claiming our call to tell the world about Jesus. Thanks be to God that the primary tool we need to do this is found in our weekly antiquated and occasionally anachronistic Sunday services. If we learn to use the perspective that this gives us, we then will learn to use the technology we develop so that it serves us, rather than having us react to it.

The Very Rev. W. Nicholas Knisely is dean of Trinity Cathedral in Phoenix, Ariz., and chair of the Episcopal Church's Standing Commission on Communications. He blogs at Entangled States.

Image (detail) "Communion" by Camilla Brunschwyler Armstrong

Advertising Space