Cell Phones and the Continually Connected Life

Session 5: Cell Phones and the Continually Connected Life

This is the fifth part of a now eight-part series on faith in a digital age. It expanded due to the richness of the discussion on the internet and the amount of material I couldn’t cover in this first week. The outline of the series is:

Week one: Advertising in a Digital Age
Week two: Email, Multi-tasking and the blurring of the work/home divide
Week three: The Internet the Backbone of the Digital Age
Week four: The Impact of the Internet and Engaging it faithfully

Week five: Cell phones and a continually connected life
Week six: Social media and the projecting and mining of the digital self

Week seven: Dating and relationships in a digital age
Week eight: The dangers of a digital age

This is a series of classes I’ve been teaching with my congregation that I’ve been attempting to capture digitally so that they could be used by other communities or small groups or for members who are unable to be present in class.

Cellphones and cellular technology are neither good nor bad, but they can impact our lives in positive and negative ways. In my early adult life, I avoided having a cellphone, they were an unneeded expense and they were not as capable as the modern smart phone is. I remember a time when I was a young lieutenant in the army and the unit I was a part of was on funeral detail which meant that we were on call if a veteran died to give military honors. We had been on this detail for months which meant I couldn’t leave Ft. Polk where I was stationed in case a phone call came in, but one weekend I waited until late on Friday night and then drove to College Station where my girlfriend at that time lived. Sometime after I departed, we were assigned a funeral and if I’d had a cellphone, they could’ve contacted me and I would have returned and nobody would’ve realized I left, but I didn’t, and I returned to my answering machine full of messages which I responded to one by one. It was a valuable lesson for me in my life, but it also represents an earlier time when we didn’t take the connections that cellphone makes possible for granted. We live in a world where we can be connected all the time and that can be a great thing and a troubling thing. It becomes challenging when we don’t set healthy boundaries around our use of this technology.

We use our tablets and cellphones for a wide range of things: from communication to entertainment to managing our calendar and money to countless other things. Below is a list of the items my congregation listed from their discussion:

They store a lot of data for access. We can have hours of music, a library of books and videos and access to countless additional hours of entertainment and information. Our cellphones and tablets also become locations where we cognitive offload, where we store things from our memory like our calendar and phone numbers and have easy access to the weather and other sources of information that our brain doesn’t commit to long term memory. In a world of continual connection there is no escape from this information unless we continually set boundaries: our work email for example may be pushed to our cellphone and in some cases the expectation may be for people to answer it at all hours. Even with aps for entertainment we see information continually pushed to the main screen encouraging us to open our phones and interact with these teasing bits of information.

The world is evolving around this technology. My congregation benefits from the additional revenue of a cell tower on our property which gives us additional income that we use to help support our staffing and ministries and most cell towers are designed to blend into the surrounding environment, but if you know what to look for you see them everywhere. Our cars are pulling this technology into their design to the capability of navigation, music, to call and read texts while we drive. The technology continues to migrate into various areas of our life.

One of the means of communication that cell phones introduced into our lives was texting. Different people value texting differently, for some it is equivalent to a phone call and for others it is not. There are times where texting can be a very efficient way of communicating which saves me from a long phone conversation or in person conversation, but there are other things it doesn’t communicate like voice or emotion. For many people texting lowers some of the boundaries for communication and makes it easier to state something that is uncomfortable because we are afraid how someone else will react. I noticed this when I was taking some courses at the University of Central Oklahoma while serving as a pastor in the area. The other students knew I was a pastor and would text me questions about relationships or questions they were afraid to ask in person about religion and it opened a window for some meaningful conversations. This lowering of boundaries can also be a negative thing. I know people who have ended relationships through a text because they didn’t want to deal with the discomfort of breaking up with someone over the phone or in person. I also know of people who have shared information or photos with someone who did not keep that information private but instead shared it with others. There are many ways the use of this technology can help us build a connection or it can make us feel dehumanized.

Cellphones and tablets were originally designed for the consumption of content instead of the creation of content like computers were designed to do. The smart phones were designed for us to purchase things on rather than create things that others might value. We have evolved in how we use them, so we do use them to capture photos and video, you can purchase software to let you view a word processor or spreadsheet, but they are primarily designed around smaller apps which connect you to internet based platforms which were predominantly designed for entertainment: social media, games, music and videos and more. People now use them for banking and economic transactions, but the majority of cell phone and tablet usage is still entertainment related. Now entertainment is not bad unless it keeps us from doing the things that bring meaning and purpose to our lives.

Cell phones and tablets can also be devices which we use to eliminate boredom or to entertain others while we work on something else. Now this is not unique to cell phones, but I think as I talk to parents who worry about their children always being plugged into their cellular devices, I think we need to acknowledge the way we have trained them to use these devices as a replacement for our attention. People worried when television, video tapes, cable tv, and gaming systems came into people’s homes that they wouldn’t talk to one another and cellular devices are acting in the same way. As a parent I understand that there are times where I needed to finish making dinner or cleaning or working and I would put in a show or a game for my children to entertain them and they enjoyed it. But we also need to be intentional about cultivating the type of relationships we want with our families, friends and those who we want to connect with. When we use a device as a replacement for connection with others they learn and model that way of dealing with their own relationships.

As I think about cell phones from a faith perspective, I want to explore the idea and commandment of Sabbath, particularly Sabbath as it is expressed in Deuteronomy 5. The Ten commandments are articulated in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 but one of the minor differences is the way they frame the command of Sabbath. In Exodus 20 Sabbath is linked to creation and the Creator’s action of resting on the Sabbath day, but here is how Deuteronomy explains the commandment:

Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work– you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day. Deuteronomy 5: 12-15

Deuteronomy highlights Sabbath in contrast to slavery and it is primarily about rest. God’s intention for all of God’s people, both those in power and those who served, was for there to be a time of rest for them. We do need to figure out what boundaries we set on our use of technology so we can have time for rest and relaxation. I also think this is an important idea in our society where we think of work as our primary place of meaning creation. In the ancient world the valuation of work and leisure was reversed. As Ellen Davis can state:

We regard work as primary, while the rest of what we do is “time-off.” But it was the opposite in the ancient world. The Latin word for “business” is neg-otium, literally, “not-leisure”; the time when one does not have to work is the norm by which other activity is measured.” (Davis, 2000, p. 191)

I’ve had vacations where a work email invaded into time I was spending with family or been at a movie when multiple messages alerted on my phone and I knew that after the movie I would need to respond to them. All these things can become a distraction in our life and we often could set the boundaries for the type of life we want to live.

We have become incredibly attached to our cell phones. Many people have had the experience of leaving the house and realizing they don’t have their cell phone and either feeling incomplete or turning around to go and retrieve it. We can feel like we are leaving a part of ourselves behind. There is also a fear of missing out and a fear of being disconnected and our cellphones can almost become the umbilical cord connecting us to the rest of our world. They also become a place where we have committed a lot of the things we choose not to store in our memory: our calendar, our contacts and much more. There is an addictive element to these devices because the fear of disconnection is one of the most powerful fears we have (more to come on that next week).

One of the other things I am beginning to wonder about with cell phones is the changing manner in how it seems we are experiencing the world around us. For example, I enjoy going to concert and while I may take a few photos most of the time I am in the moment enjoying the performance and the music, singing along and enjoying the people I am with. Yet, I am seeing more people spending their time recording the show to share with others and enjoy later rather than (in my perception) enjoying the moment.

With most means of communication, we can become captive to the other person’s response. I’ve certainly texted others and seen (when you have two apple devices communicating) the … emerge as the other person is typing a response. We can grow impatient because we’ve grown to expect an instant response, but others may not either be available or feel the need to respond in the same manner because of boundaries they’ve set.

Cell phones and tablets are incredibly capable devices that can connect us with people across the world. With any technology we need to discern when it is important to be available to the people reaching out to us through the technology and when it is important to be present with the people who are physically present to us. These are choices we can make. We were created for connection and rest, we need work and leisure. The boundaries we set can inform how we use technology to create the type of life we seek. We were created for Sabbath and we do need times to break away from our technology. If your cell phone is adding value to your life and relationships, then it is a positive thing but if it is draining energy from your life and relationships then you should consider the boundaries you set around this in your life.

Discussion Questions:

What do you use your cellphone or tablet for? What things on the list of things that you do bring you joy, and which do not?

What do you rely on your cellphone to remember for you? (Example phone numbers, calendar)

How do you create time for rest in a connected world? Are there any boundaries you put around your use of cell phones and tablets?

How do you value a text vs a phone call? Why?

Do you ever feel like you cell phone makes you unable to leave work at the office?

Talk about a time where your cell phone or tablet distracted you from a conversation with someone you cared about?

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Psalm 50 Recalled to the Covenantal Life

The Temple by Radojavor@deviantart.com

Psalm 50

<A Psalm of Asaph.>
1The mighty one, God the LORD, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting.
2 Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth.
3 Our God comes and does not keep silence, before him is a devouring fire, and a mighty tempest all around him.
4 He calls to the heavens above and to the earth, that he may judge his people:
5 “Gather to me my faithful ones, who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!”
6 The heavens declare his righteousness, for God himself is judge. Selah
7 “Hear, O my people, and I will speak, O Israel, I will testify against you. I am God, your God.
8 Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you; your burnt offerings are continually before me.
9 I will not accept a bull from your house, or goats from your folds.
10 For every wild animal of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills.
11 I know all the birds of the air, and all that moves in the field is mine.
12 “If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and all that is in it is mine.
13 Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?
14 Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and pay your vows to the Most High.
15 Call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”
16 But to the wicked God says: “What right have you to recite my statutes, or take my covenant on your lips?
17 For you hate discipline, and you cast my words behind you.
18 You make friends with a thief when you see one, and you keep company with adulterers.
19 “You give your mouth free rein for evil, and your tongue frames deceit.
20 You sit and speak against your kin; you slander your own mother’s child.
21 These things you have done and I have been silent; you thought that I was one just like yourself. But now I rebuke you, and lay the charge before you.
22 “Mark this, then, you who forget God, or I will tear you apart, and there will be no one to deliver.
23 Those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honor me; to those who go the right way I will show the salvation of God.”

There is a lot of debate among scholars as to the original use of this psalm: whether it was a liturgy of covenant renewal or the words of a priest in a sermon but ultimately the original setting has faded far into the background and what remains is a psalm which lifts up a challenge to live one’s life according to the vision of God’s covenant. The book of Deuteronomy was a challenge for the people of God to live according to the covenant and commands of the God of Israel and the prophets frequently exhorted people to reorient their lives around the covenant. This Psalm, in concert with several of the prophets, places the worship of the LORD conducted in the temple in its proper perspective. The sacrificial and religious actions of the temple are not enough to appease the God of Israel, this God expects the people’s lives and their society to be ordered around God’s covenantal vision.

The psalm begins by preparing the hearer to listen to the words that God will speak through the speaker, most likely a priest addressing the community. Psalm 50 is the first psalm attributed to Asaph who is recorded as a Levitical singer in the time of King Solomon (2 Chronicles 11-13).  Asaph begins by declaring the power and might of the LORD whose voice covers the breadth of the day, whose words are preceded by fire and a mighty tempest and calls on heaven and earth so that God may judge God’s people. While there are some thematic parallels to the speaking of God to Elijah at Mount Horeb where the great wind, earthquake and fire proceed the voice of God; this is not the voice of God which comes to Elijah in the sheer silence (1 Kings 19: 11-18) but instead this is the voice of God going out before the world to testify before not only God’s people but all of creation. The people of God are placed into a conversation which the whole world can overhear and judge them by as they are gathered in Zion to hear what God will speak.

Covenant making in the bible is a serious business which took place in the context of sacrificing an animal. The covenant that God makes with Abram (Abraham) in Genesis 17 is probably the best-known example of a covenant making ceremony where the animals are cut open and the parties (God and Abram) pass between the portions of the animals obligating themselves to one another. Therefore, the phrase translated ‘made a covenant’ is literally ‘cut a covenant.’ Earlier in the psalms we have seen times where the psalmist has testified that God needs to act to keep the covenant but here the focus is on the people needing to do their part to fulfill the covenant. The covenant is not about ritual worship or sacrifices but instead is about the way of life that God expects the people to embrace- a way of justice to others and faithfulness to God.

These words were probably spoken in the context of worship, but worship is not enough. In many ancient cultures worship and sacrifice were to appease or entice the god being worshipped to grant favor to the worshippers. The God of Israel has different expectations. God will not be bribed by sacrifice or be satisfied by attendance in worship. The words of the Apostle Paul echo the content here when he appeals to the church in Rome:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12: 1-2

As master of all creation, the LORD has no need of any animal for food. God is not reliant upon the faithful ones for nourishment or life but instead is the provider of all things. What God desires is a transformed life and society which could ultimately renew the world. The people are commended to come to God in thanksgiving and to uphold their vows and the covenant and in return God will deliver and provide for them.

Knowing the right words to recite or knowing the content of the statutes, commandments and the covenant are not enough. One can worship properly and live as the wicked. The way of the wise is the way of God’s discipline. One’s company is indicative of the type of actions a person will commit and one’s words can cause deep harm to brothers and sisters. One’s words, one’s deeds and one’s associations matter in life. The wicked one may have avoided judgment and may have, by their worship and sacrifices, masqueraded as one of the righteous but God promises an end to God’s silence and inaction. To make a covenant with God and to fail to live in accordance with that covenant is viewed as a matter of life and death. There is no one to deliver the wicked from God’s words and justice. Conversely there is nothing that can separate the righteous ones from the salvation of God.

 

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The Impact of the Internet and Engaging it Faithfully

Session 4: The Impact of the Internet and Engaging it Faithfully

This is the third part of a now eight-part series on faith in a digital age. It expanded due to the richness of the discussion on the internet and the amount of material I couldn’t cover in this first week. The outline of the series is:

Week one: Advertising in a Digital Age
Week two: Email, Multi-tasking and the blurring of the work/home divide
Week three: The Internet the Backbone of the Digital Age
Week four: The Impact of the Internet and Engaging it faithfully
Week five: Cell phones and a continually connected life
Week six: Social media and the projecting and mining of the digital self

Week seven: Dating and relationships in a digital age
Week eight: The dangers of a digital age

This is a series of classes I’ve been teaching with my congregation that I’ve been attempting to capture digitally so that they could be used by other communities or small groups or for members who are unable to be present in class.

In the previous session we talked about how the internet is the infrastructure or the backbone that makes the digital age possible. We will be focusing in this session on how our interactions with the internet shape our minds and our actions and how we as people of faith can responsibly use this technology to live the lives that we want to live.

The first impact we’ll discuss briefly is what I’ve called the ‘Google effect’ but it has the official title of Cognitive Offloading. This deals with the impact of having information easily available on how our mind stores information. I’m in my mid 40s and if you are my age or older you probably remember having a lot of telephone numbers memorized and this memorization was drilled into your memory by having to manually dial or push buttons to dial the phone number of the person you wanted to talk with. Today the number of phone numbers I have in my memory has decreased dramatically-I can still remember my phone number growing up, but I can’t remember my mom’s current phone number since it is stored in my phone. My memory has used the contacts in my phone as a quickly available alternative to dedicating connections to remembering her new phone number. This appears in several ways: you hear a weather forecast and forget what the weather will be, but you can look it up online or on your phone, you look at your watch and then forget immediately what time it is. Our minds our exposed to a lot of data on a regular day and our memory makes choices about what to store in long term memory and what to purge from our memory and so things that were once remembered from constant use or from limited availability are no longer stored. Perhaps when you were growing up you remember having to learn multiplication tables or the square roots of certain numbers by memorization and were told the reason you had to do this was because you wouldn’t always have a calculator with you. If you carry a smart phone you now do carry a calculator with you all the time, but it doesn’t mean the exercises of committing this type of repetitive information to our brains was not a worthwhile exercise. Cognitive offload works like the pensieve that Professor Dumbledore uses in the Harry Potter novels to store his thoughts: we transfer the responsibility for remembering the information from our memories to some other device so that we can use that device to revisit the information later. The reality is that I use this blog that your reading from in a similar way to store work that I’ve done and processed through for easy access later, I remember much of what I write but it also allows me in a positive way to store more information than my memory may retain.

Connected to this is the way that the ease of information can shortcut the learning process. If you were to wonder, for example, what is the second largest snake in the past you would’ve gone probably to a library book on snakes or and encyclopedia and look through the various species to figure out what this answer was but today you would only have to enter in Google or another search engine, “What is the second largest snake” and you’d have easy access to a list of the largest snakes. But if you do this search, you’ll soon find out that the lists don’t agree: it depends on what you mean by the largest. You can refine your search based on what is the longest or the heaviest snake, but not only have you missed the process of learning more about the snake world as you searched (assuming of course that you are interested in snakes to begin with) but you also don’t necessarily have the background information to interpret the answer you’ve been given. When my son was in high school, he was a part of the STEM program (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) and in his second year he came home with a bridge truss problem like the one below:

Now my undergraduate was in civil engineering so when I saw this problem, I knew exactly what it was, even if I couldn’t remember exactly how to solve it. This is a problem that most engineers encounter in the second year of college in a course called statics. To solve this problem, you do need some background in trigonometry and physics and my son hadn’t taken either course yet. It took me going back to an old text book, teaching myself and then trying to walk my son through the problem that he didn’t have the background for (I also sent a note to the teacher explaining why I found it strange they were introducing a problem like this and not giving the students the tools to adequately solve it). Although this is a non-internet example lets return to the internet and look at something that you may have experienced. Have you ever self-diagnosed your symptoms using a service like WebMD and then later went to a doctor with your diagnosis you quickly realize that the doctor doesn’t automatically assume that your diagnosis is correct? A medical doctor has spent years in learning about the body, diseases, treatments and has experience in seeing people with different symptoms and has tools to diagnose and treat that we, without going through the discipline and training, do not. There is a difference in a web search and a degree in medicine or engineering or even religion-it doesn’t mean that we can’t know things about these disciplines without the degrees or certifications, but that knowledge is without the same amount of context unless you are willing to dedicate years of study to a topic.

As a person who is curious about curiosity, I’ve tried to learn how imagination and curiosity work. One thing I’ve learned is there are two types of curiosity: a quick distraction and the slow and dedicated digging into a craft or subject. The ‘ooh shiny’ effect of a quick distraction causes us to take our attention away from other things for a brief time, but it does not hold enough interest for us to continue to pursue it in any organized way. Real learning of a craft or discipline takes hours, frustration, mistakes and drive. There are ways we can train ourselves to learn but there is no quick way to master any subject. If we continually distracted by the entertainment or the attraction of something that takes us away from the things we are willing to dedicate our time and sweat to learn. This type of “ooh shiny” distraction is easy to find in an internet connected world where the possibilities for distraction are endless. One of the things that is beginning to happen is societies which are less connected to the internet, and less distracted, are the places where many new innovations in science, mathematics and technology are coming from as they continue to be encouraged to learn their disciplines deeply. Even in Silicon Valley where a lot of the technology of the internet emerges from there is a trend of limiting the exposure of their families to the continual connectivity of the internet.

One of the other things that has changed on many internet platforms is the removal of stopping clues. If you’ve ever spent hours watching Netflix or YouTube or continued to scroll of a social media platform like Facebook or Twitter or Instagram it may be helpful to realize that these platforms are designed for you to do this. There are two major models for how sites are funded that use this trick to keep you engaged: either they are a subscription service that wants to ensure that you value their service (and the more you watch the more you probably value it) or they get paid based on advertisement and the more you watch the more ads you see. Stopping clues are things like the end of a chapter in a book or the end of a television episode, they are natural stopping places. At the end of a chapter in a book it is a natural place to consider whether you put in a bookmark and go onto another task or whether you continue onward in the book. When television shows were episodic and weekly the ending of an episode meant you had to wait a week for the next episode to be available. But with Netflix online, for example, when you complete one episode it automatically prepares the next episode to follow it, removing the stopping clue so you stay engaged. YouTube also follows this pattern by automatically launching the next video they anticipate you would want to see. Social media allows you to continue to scroll without any clue to tell you to pause and disconnect. Ultimately all these services are competing for your time, loyalty and directly (through subscription) or indirectly (through advertising) your money and information.

I come at this series and the rest of my life from a faith perspective and as a pastor I do think it is important to give us a way to think about big issues like this in relation to our faith.  The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 brings us a lot of helpful discussions to think about our online interactions: We are called to the salt of the earth (that which preserves the earth) and the light of the world in Matthew 5: 13-16. What does it mean to be salt and light in a digital world? I believe that some people believe that their actions in the digital world don’t matter in the same way and that frees them to say things to other people they would never say face to face, but I do believe that in this world our actions are need to preserve and protect and to be a source of light and illumination rather than pain and darkness. The next section of the Sermon of the Mount I want to highlight is where Jesus reinterprets the commandment on murder (Matthew 5: 21-26) and this is extended to if you insult or curse a brother or sister you are liable to judgment. Our words in both the physical world and the digital world matter. Many in my congregation have heard my reinterpretation of the children’s proverb, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will send me to therapy.” The next commandment reinterpreted is on adultery (Matthew 5: 27-30) where “everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her.” The reality is there will always be things we are uncomfortable with and this is a challenging discussion that could take an entire series of classes and this is one of those places where we do need some wisdom. I know it is easy to target pornography, but I think if we are going to consider visual images, we also need to consider things like romance novels which create vivid images in our minds. For me where Jesus’ discussion of this commandment points to when we think of women and men as objects rather than people. If a person is an object, something I don’t consider worthy of my respect then it is easy to think of them as something that is merely for my gratification, but I think one of the critical things the Sermon on the Mount points to is the way we are to rehumanize the way we relate to people. That is why we are called to love our enemies rather than to demonize them (Matthew 38-38) and to be people focused on reconciliation rather than retribution. Finally, in this, and other discussions I think it is important not to place ourselves in the role of judge over other people (Matthew 7: 1-5). To me this invites me to engage people curiously, wanting to understand how they are approaching life rather than condemning them for living and valuing things differently than me.

I’ve focused on some of the more challenging aspects of the internet above, but it also gives us a lot of possibilities of how we communicate and live out our practices that are central to our faith. This technology can be used to help us connect. My children are both living in Oklahoma while I live in Texas and I can each week communicate with them by video using Skype as a free service. Twenty years ago, this would have been a long-distance phone call that was both expensive and lost the visual component. Later this week I will have a meeting with several colleagues on a platform called Zoom so that we can meet without having to drive across the city of the state to discuss the topics we need to discuss. I know many churches use email for prayer and some create a virtual prayer wall where people can place prayers for others in the congregation to pray about. If you are reading this or watching the video, you are seeing some of my experimentation with using the technology for teaching. It allows me to reach a much wider audience, yet it does have some limitations in facilitating a discussion. Most digital technology is designed to be consumed rather than interacted with, and while I’m comfortable with teaching in a more lecture like format I’m intrigued by some of the streaming and discussions coming out of the gaming world. Ideally worship would be with a community but for various reasons that is not always possible. For example, I have a colleague whose church live streams their worship and there was a week where the live stream was not available, and they received a call from a small group of people in Wyoming wondering where the live stream was. He discovered that this group was gathering together on Sundays and watching the live stream to be church. I also think it is a way that people who are physically unable to leave home or the hospital can feel like they are also participating in worship.

Finally, I want to talk about our virtual identity. We construct our identity throughout our lives: the education we pursue, the jobs we hold, how we dress in various situations, music we listen to, etc. We also project a digital identity out into the internet, and it is worth wondering how that digital identity matches with our personal identity. One of the topics up for debate currently is whether control of our digital identity is a fundamental human right or whether corporations and governments freely have access to it. Ultimately, we may not be able to control what corporations or governments do but we do have some control about what we broadcast of our identity. If a person from my congregation showed up at my house, they wouldn’t be surprised by the person they encounter there, and even for those who only know me from online who I am there is reflective of who I am as a person. Do I share everything about myself, no and nobody should. There are parts of us that we share only with those who have earned our trust but who say we are should reflect our values and be authentic to the person we are attempting to be. I know when I’ve interviewed with congregations in the past, I’ve invited them to investigate what I write, what I show of myself online as a window to get to know who I am as they discern whether I might be their pastor.

If you are hearing or reading this, you use the internet and most of us use it daily. Hopefully this helps you think about how you want to use the internet. What pieces of our memory are we OK with committing to our electronic devises and what do we want to maintain? How do we use the internet to learn and when do need to dig deeply to learn a master a skill or topic? How do we set our own boundaries and limits to the time we spend online and how do we create clues for us to stop and transfer our energies elsewhere? How does our faith inform not only our virtual identity but also our day to day interactions with others?

Discussion Questions:

What things do you rely on internet connected devices to remember for you?

Have you ever spent what you felt was wasted time online? Why did you stay online when you felt like the time was wasted?

Do you have any boundaries you set to limit the time or ways you or members of your family utilize the internet?

What is something you are genuinely curious about and would be willing to invest time and energy in learning or mastering?

How does our faith inform our interactions online? What are some areas online that you consider dangerous?

Reflect on what makes you who you are (your identity). List things that you think are important to defining your identity. What do you share online and what do you keep private?

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Psalm 49 Wealth, Wisdom and Death

Harmen Steenwijck, Vanitas (1640)

Psalm 49

<To the leader. Of the Korahites. A Psalm.>
1 Hear this, all you peoples; give ear, all inhabitants of the world,
2 both low and high, rich and poor together.
3 My mouth shall speak wisdom; the meditation of my heart shall be understanding.
4 I will incline my ear to a proverb; I will solve my riddle to the music of the harp.
5 Why should I fear in times of trouble, when the iniquity of my persecutors surrounds me,
6 those who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches?
7 Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life, there is no price one can give to God for it.
8 For the ransom of life is costly, and can never suffice
9 that one should live on forever and never see the grave.
10 When we look at the wise, they die; fool and dolt perish together and leave their wealth to others.
11 Their graves are their homes forever, their dwelling places to all generations, though they named lands their own.
12 Mortals cannot abide in their pomp; they are like the animals that perish.
13 Such is the fate of the foolhardy, the end of those who are pleased with their lot. Selah
14 Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol; Death shall be their shepherd; straight to the grave they descend, and their form shall waste away; Sheol shall be their home.
15 But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me. Selah
16 Do not be afraid when some become rich, when the wealth of their houses increases.
17 For when they die they will carry nothing away; their wealth will not go down after them.
18 Though in their lifetime they count themselves happy — for you are praised when you do well for yourself —
19 they will go to the company of their ancestors, who will never again see the light.
20 Mortals cannot abide in their pomp; they are like the animals that perish.

Psalm 49 takes on the tone of wisdom literature like the book of Proverbs or Ecclesiastes and engages the topic of wealth in relation to death. The poet believes there is a moral order to the universe that the righteous and unrighteous, the rich and the poor, the wise and the foolish live within. The simple belief that those who do good will prosper and those who are evil will see their ambitions thwarted may not be observed in the daily experience of the psalmist, but death becomes the ransom that no amount of wealth can cover. We are taken into the riddle of: Why should one fear in times of trouble when powerful and presumably wealthy persecutors oppress the righteous one? For the author of the psalm there is comfort in the knowledge that the rich cannot buy their way out of Sheol and that the moral order of God’s universe remains intact.

Humans fear death and we spend an incredible amount of our wealth in the United States attempting to avoid succumbing to death. Even though Christians believe in the resurrection of the dead, many still approach their death with apprehension. To quote a Kenny Chesney song, “Everybody wants to go to heaven…But nobody wanna go now.” But even with all the advances in medical technology and the amount of money that is spent to prolong life being wealthy cannot grant immortality. The idea of being able to secure one’s life through wealth has been explored in futuristic dystopian imaginations, like the 2011 movie In Time, where the poor have their life shortened and the rich have their life extended at the expense of the poor or Jupiter Ascending (2015) where entire worlds are populated so that they can be harvested to provide extended life for the galaxy’s wealthiest clients. In many ways the moral imagination of these dystopian worlds models the economic imagination of Egypt in the Exodus and any society that viewed people as a commodity and wealth as a privilege of a small elite. If wealth were able to ensure immortality fear would drive many to acquire this ransom from death at any cost but thankfully, as I wrote when discussing Ecclesiastes 2, “mortality is the great equalizer in all its unfairness.” Yet, for the psalmist’s moral universe mortality is the great equalizer for, as they are considering it, death is the shepherd which God uses to ensure that those who are materially wealthy and politically powerful do not forever hold power over the righteous ones.

Within the worldview of the psalms the conception of heaven or hell as places that people go in the afterlife has not developed and as we saw in Psalm 6 the conception of Sheol as a place where the dead go is not a place of reward or punishment but simply a place outside of the realm of the living. When the author speaks of God ransoming their soul from Sheol it is trusting that God will not let them die at this point while their persecutors prosper, but instead that the moral order of God’s promises will ensure that their life endures but the life of the wealthy persecutors will reach its end without God’s intervention on their behalf. The God of Israel is a God who intervenes in the life of the faithful to ensure that they are not destroyed, and that God’s promises bear fruit in their lives.

This final Korahite psalm of Book II (Psalms 42-49) is an example of a reflection on situational wisdom. The psalms are more poetry than systematic theology and combine emotion with logic and faith to attempt to discern an answer to the world as the authors of these songs encounter them. Looking at the world from the perspective of one undergoing persecution by a wealthy and powerful oppressor, the psalmist can see death as God’s equalizer. Illness, weakness and impending death in psalms of lament are all brought before God as things that are being unfairly born by the righteous one. But the wisdom of the book of psalms is bringing all these pieces of situational wisdom, cries of lament, praises of joy, love songs and meditations together into a collection of psalms which address the breadth of human emotion and experience.

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Book of Deuteronomy

Grigory Mekheev, Exodus (2000) artist shared work under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

These are my reflections on the book of Deuteronomy from February 2015 to April 2016. As a process of cleaning up my index and making posts more accessible.

Deuteronomy 1: Retelling The Story For A New Time
Deuteronomy 2: The Warrior God
Deuteronomy 3: Visions Of A Future Land
Deuteronomy 4: A Story Formed People And An Imageless God
Deuteronomy 5: The Ten Commandments Revisited
Deuteronomy 6: The Center Of The Faith
Deuteronomy 7: A People Set Apart
Deuteronomy 8: The Dangers Of Abundance
Deuteronomy 9: The Promise Of God And A Stubborn People
Deuteronomy 10: The Covenant Renewed
Deuteronomy 11: Blessings And Curses
Deuteronomy 12: Expounding On The Law
Deuteronomy 13: The Challenge Of Exclusivity
Deuteronomy 14: Boundary Markers And Celebrations
Deuteronomy 15: A Life Of Covenant Generosity
Deuteronomy 16: Celebrations, Remembrance And Justice
Deuteronomy 17: A Society Structured Around One Lord
Deuteronomy 18: Priests, Prophets And Forbidden Magic
Deuteronomy 19: Justice, Refuge And Grace
Deuteronomy 20: The Conduct Of War
Deuteronomy 21: Death, Rebellious Children, Captured Women And Inheritance
Deuteronomy 22: Miscellaneous Laws
Deuteronomy 23: Boundaries, Purity, Interest, Vows And Limits
Deuteronomy 24: Divorce, Purity And Justice
Deuteronomy 25: Punishment, Justice And The Enemy
Deuteronomy 26: Bringing The Story Into Liturgy
Deuteronomy 27: Preserving The Law
Deuteronomy 28: Blessings And Curses
Deuteronomy 29: A Final Address
Deuteronomy 30: Hope Beyond The Curse
Deuteronomy 31: Preparing For Life After Moses
Deuteronomy 32: The Last Song Of Moses
Deuteronomy 33: A Final Poetic Blessing
Deuteronomy 34: The Death Of Moses
Reflections From A Year Spent With Deuteronomy

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The Internet the Backbone of the Digital Age

Session 3: The Internet the Backbone of the Digital Age

This is the third part of a now eight-part series on faith in a digital age. It expanded due to the richness of the discussion on the internet and the amount of material I couldn’t cover in this first week. The outline of the series is:

Week one: Advertising in a Digital Age
Week two: Email, Multi-tasking and the blurring of the work/home divide
Week three: The Internet the Backbone of the Digital Age
Week four: The Impact of the Internet and Engaging it faithfully
Week five: Cell phones and a continually connected life
Week six: Social media and the projecting and mining of the digital self
Week seven: Dating and relationships in a digital age
Week eight: The dangers of a digital age

This is a series of classes I’ve been teaching with my congregation that I’ve been attempting to capture digitally so that they could be used by other communities or small groups or for members who are unable to be present in class.

The internet is the backbone, the infrastructure that makes the digital age possible. My children have never known a world without the interconnections that the internet makes possible, but I still think the internet is a mystery to a lot of people. The internet is simply a set of interconnected servers and computers that enable data to be exchanged both over hardwired connections and wirelessly. For a simplistic illustration think of phones: when I was growing up, I had a large number of phone numbers memorized and there were large phonebooks that gave me both the business and personal numbers I needed. If I wanted to talk to somebody, I would enter the phone a seven-digit number for a local call (eleven for a long-distance call 1+an area code+ the seven-digit phone number) and I would be connected to the proper phone in the proper house. Now with my cell phone I remember many fewer numbers, they are stored in my contacts. I can go to the contacts and select, for example, work and the phone translates that into the number 972-569-8185, or I can say to my phone “call work” and it will dial this same number. With the internet it works in a similar manner, if I type into my browser http://www.rejoicefrisco.com it automatically goes to a registry and translates this into a long numerical address which tells the computer the location on a server that I want to see. It goes to a space on the server and translates the data that has been stored there into a visual page. The way the internet is designed allows for multiple pages and places to be linked together and displayed on in a user-friendly way but the internet itself is just the backbone, it is just the structure that everything else we use it for is built upon.

Even though we say the internet is ‘just’ the infrastructure this infrastructure has changed so much of how we live and engage our world. One of the big stories the week before I presented this was the multi-billion dollar divorce of Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon, a company that wouldn’t have existed without the internet and the capabilities it provided. Amazon is significantly larger than its next largest competitor, Walmart. Many of the traditional retailers have been heavily impacted by this change. Sears is celebrating 125 years of business this year but also is in the process of being liquidated because the world has changed around it and it isn’t hard to think of the number of stores that no longer exist. It has changed the way we think about the need for a physical place to do business, to bank, and many other things.

We use the internet for a wider range of things from communications, to shopping, to getting news and information, to watch sports or entertainment programming, and many more things. We use it to monitor information and it also watches us (this is where many of the cookies on your computer come from). It is what most of the aps on our cellphones access to be useful and it connects us not only through our computers but through all our devices. As we enter a time where people have smart houses and smart cars, they are also continually transmitting information to servers which monitor these things. As we discussed in advertising, we can give up our information without thinking about it and often for a benefit (a lower insurance rate for example if they can monitor our driving behavior) but it is worth thinking about what that information is worth both to you and the person gathering it.

Most people realize that just because something is on the internet that doesn’t mean it is true. Yet, there are many things that people accept that may not be true for various reasons (confirmation bias and misplaced trust are just two examples) . The internet has no editor, no one to go back and verify the factuality of a page or article. Now an individual site may have its own controls: if you go to a news site, they have an editor or something like National Geographic would, but many sites do not. It is a great place to get information out quickly and easily and that is a great freedom. The internet makes this site possible but there is no editor other than me. There is no ‘peer review’ that we would see in the academic world where an article would be placed out with a claim and then be reviewed by others in the field to see if the claim can be verified: this is how everything from science to theology and biblical studies worked for years. The internet doesn’t do this.

There have been some creative ways to get around the lack of an editorial or peer review structure and a good case to think about this is Wikipedia. In the early 1990s Microsoft decided they were going to reinvent the encyclopedia with Encarta, a resource that they put their significant resources behind at the same time a small startup called Wikipedia entered the landscape. Encarta went with the traditional, but cumbersome peer review method to create its encyclopedia the way organizations like Encyclopedia Britannica had done in the past but Wikipedia allowed the community to create and comment on articles creating an agile and quick way of updating information. Microsoft eventually gave up on Encarta and Wikipedia has proven, through allowing others to critique articles, to be as accurate as the older peer review methods had delivered in the past.

Trust is a central issue in the evaluation of a source. If you are reading this as a blog or watching the video of this presentation and you don’t know me personally then you have to evaluate, “do I trust Neil as a presenter or not?” “Is the information he is giving me accurate or not?”

The internet has also proved a challenge for a lot of traditional businesses and industries. If you are still functioning as a business or an organization, you have probably adjusted how you work due to the internet. Many customer service related jobs have disappeared and have been replaced by technology or been relocated into central warehouses for an organization or in larger online companies like Amazon or Zappos. There has been a way people think of the need for a physical place. Even in the world of religion it has changed the way people think of the need for a physical space. One of my realization as I’ve been experimenting more with placing more video and discussions on the internet is that many people have watched many of these videos before ever considering coming to my congregation.  Even if people never do come my hope is that I am making a positive impact for them, but could you imagine a virtual church? I know some people who are trying to do this, to replicate a church experience for people who for various reasons may not want or be able to come to a traditional experience of worship.

The church has always been a community that was connected even when its leaders couldn’t be present. The apostle Paul is the first we see this type of attempt to maintain a presence in his communities even when he couldn’t be there physically. The letters to the church in Rome, Corinth, Philippi, Thessalonica and more were attempts to influence and impact a community when he was physically somewhere else. We have always used the technology of the day to attempt to transmit the faith across distance. In my own tradition, the Lutheran tradition, Martin Luther benefited from the invention of the printing press approximately fifty years before the reformation began as a way of transmitting his thoughts, protests, sermons and teaching material from Wittenberg across much of Europe. Several large churches have developed satellite congregations connected by video with the central pastor/preacher who is the charismatic leader of the community. Even among traditional churches, like the one I am a part of, there is an increasing realization that for many of our smaller communities we may need to think creatively how they can continue to worship and be connected with the larger church with limited resources.

I’m indebted to Deanna Thompson’s honest reflections in The Virtual Body of Christ in a Suffering World which reflects on her own experiences with technology while she was dealing with treatment for cancer. Technology enabled her to remain connected with people when her physical body was unable to have sustained conversations and it allowed her to not be defined by the look of pity that she would see from people when they would visit her. CaringBridge, a website for giving medical updates on someone undergoing treatment, allowed her to pass on information about her treatment to a wide range of people and to receive messages from an unexpected number of people who were praying and sending thoughts. Through technology she was able to communicate in ways that reflected her normal intelligence and wit because she could communicate on her own terms. As she writes:

What I wrote and published online still sounded like the me I was familiar with, the me that was not wholly overcome by the stigma and diminishment caused by advanced stage cancer. (Thompson, 2016, p. 63)

When we are sick, we may lose our self-image as a person who can contribute, who has a voice.  The internet can provide means of communicating that may be harder face to face.

There is a lot more I want to discuss in relation to the internet and some things I plan to discuss next session include:

How does the ease of information availability change the way we store information in our memory?

Many facts we need background information to even understand the answers.

Lack of ‘stopping clues’ designed into many aspects of the internet and how we can lose time by not stopping at regular intervals

How I attempt to use the internet in various ways and some boundaries I set

From a faith perspective we are going to think through some parts of the sermon on the mount and what that might have to say about how we interact online

We will also think about how we can do ancient things like prayer, connection, teaching and maybe even worship in a connected age.

Finally, we will think about the online identities we construct and how they connect to our physical identities.

Discussion questions:

What do you use the internet for? How frequently do you use the internet?

How do you use the internet to communicate and connect with other people?

What are some changes you’ve noticed happening because of technology?

What are some of the strengths of connecting with people across the internet? What are come of the challenges of connecting with people across the internet?

What are your thoughts about a virtual faith community? What would be some benefits and some challenges to your understanding of what it means to be faithful?

Why would people seek out a virtual church community rather than a traditional community of faith?

Have you ever used technology to communicate when you were physically unable to be present with someone? How was the connection you felt over the distance?

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Psalm 48 God and Zion

Panorama of the Temple Mount from the Mount of Olives by Bienchido shared under Creative Commons 4.0

 Psalm 48

<A Song. A Psalm of the Korahites.>
1 Great is the LORD and greatly to be praised in the city of our God. His holy mountain,
2 beautiful in elevation, is the joy of all the earth, Mount Zion, in the far north, the city of the great King.
3 Within its citadels God has shown himself a sure defense.
4 Then the kings assembled, they came on together.
5 As soon as they saw it, they were astounded; they were in panic, they took to flight;
6 trembling took hold of them there, pains as of a woman in labor,
7 as when an east wind shatters the ships of Tarshish.
8 As we have heard, so have we seen in the city of the LORD of hosts, in the city of our God, which God establishes forever. Selah
9 We ponder your steadfast love, O God, in the midst of your temple.
10 Your name, O God, like your praise, reaches to the ends of the earth. Your right hand is filled with victory.
11 Let Mount Zion be glad, let the towns of Judah rejoice because of your judgments.
12 Walk about Zion, go all around it, count its towers,
13 consider well its ramparts; go through its citadels, that you may tell the next generation
14 that this is God, our God forever and ever. He will be our guide forever.

In the previous two psalms we have celebrated God as our refuge (Psalm 46) and God as King (Psalm 47) and now we see God’s Kingship occupying a specific place of refuge: the city of Jerusalem and the temple. The city of Jerusalem and the temple were two central signs of God’s promised protection and presence. Although I can understand the remark of Walter Bruggemann and William H. Bellinger, Jr. that the beginning and ending of the psalm in their symmetry and structure of, “nearly equating the God of the temple with the beauty and symmetry of it.” (Brueggemann, 2014, p. 224) I tend to view the message of the psalm in a more positive light appreciating the presence of God in a holy space. There is always a danger of identifying a structure or item designated for God’s worship and glory becoming an idol in the mind of the worshipper. Yet, we do seek places where God’s presence can be felt amid a world where God’s presence may be harder to identify and God’s refuge in a world that can feel fraught with dangers. The city, the mountain and the temple should all be spaces where the LORD is praised. At its best the beauty and security of the temple and city create a little piece of heaven on earth where God’s presence seems closer. Religious buildings, from the humblest to the most elaborate, attempt to create a safe and holy place for God’s people to come together and where God’s presence is felt and communicated.

Jerusalem as city is merely stone, wood, cloth and metal inhabited by the people who dwell in and around it. Yet, in the minds of the faithful it becomes something far greater. As J. Clinton McCann, Jr. can state, “Jerusalem is important because it is God’s place; thus it can serve as a witness to God’s character.” (NIB IV: 821) It becomes a place of hope and aspiration where in the words of the prophet Isaiah:

In the days to come the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Isaiah 2: 2

Nancy deClaissé-Walford points to how the psalm appropriates the language of the Canaanites that was used to worship Baal. God ss the one who ascends the mountain in the north instead of Baal, Zion replaces Zaphon as the place of sanctuary and the place from which the God of Israel reigns as King over all other gods and nations. (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 435) Like Psalm 29, the people transformed the language of the surrounding culture to give worship and praise to the LORD of hosts. This serves both a polemical function, the LORD is God and King instead of Baal, but also reflects the process of trying to come up with language that can be used to talk about God and the willingness of the Jewish people to repurpose imagery that seemed appropriate for their LORD.

In contrast to the hope in Isaiah 2 where the nations stream to Zion seeking teaching and wisdom, we see the kings of the earth assembling to assault Jerusalem. Yet, like Psalm 2: 1-6, the conspiring of the kings of the nations only exposes their weakness. It is possible that Psalm 48 references the failed siege of King Sennacherib of Assyria in 701 B.C.E. (2 Kings 18-19) but the psalm may be independent of this experience of liberation in the memory of the Jewish people. The kings who sought to conquer in strength flee in panic and trembling. Kings who are pictured as masculine symbols of conquest are transformed in the psalm to women in childbirth, an image in the ancient world that was the opposite of strength. Although I would disagree with the use of a woman in childbirth as an image of weakness it was a common image in the ancient world because of the intense pain and the high risk of death for women during childbirth in the ancient world. Devastating winds in ancient Israel were east winds. In Exodus 14:21 it was an east wind which drove back the Red Sea and in Jeremiah 18:17 God promise to scatter Israel before their enemy “Like the wind from the east.”

The reality of God as the refuge for the people of Zion moves from being something handed down from previous generations to the experienced reality of the city of Zion. Once they had heard of God’s steadfast love, victory and judgements but now they can rejoice because they have experienced these things. The threat from the other nations has passed and they can walk around an examine both the physical walls and barriers that surround the city but also reflect upon the God who is the true refuge for the faithful people. They will now have their own experience of God’s faithfulness to share with future generations for their God will endure forever and ever.

For those of us who hear the words of this psalm in our own time we may wonder where we go to experience the presence and protection of God? What are times where we experienced God’s power so that we could speak of our own experience of God rather than the experience of our ancestors? What language do we use to talk about God and how has it changed from the language our parents or grandparents used? What places do we consider sacred or holy and why do we consider them to be sacred?

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