Transitioning into the Gospel of Matthew

 

Guido Reni, St. Matthew and the Angel (1620-1630)

The one constant in my writing over the past seven years has been the practice of reflecting on this strange and wonderful book of scriptures that have been handed on to both the Jewish and Christian faiths. Over this time, I’ve worked primarily with books I had less familiarity with even if I had some general knowledge and skills honed both in education and years of interpreting scripture. This has been an instrumental part of my personal growth and has helped both my appreciation and love for the scriptures grow. The past seven years have seen me work through (in order of appearance in the Bible, rather than date they were worked through) Exodus, Deuteronomy, Esther, Psalms 1-51, Ecclesiastes, Jeremiah, Haggai and Revelation. Until this time I have not worked through any of the gospels or Pauline letters since these were areas I invested in heavily in both my education and early in ministry and which as a pastor I preached on more frequently but my work in both the Hebrew Scriptures and recently in Revelation has made me reconsider this approach due to some new insights.

The Gospel of Matthew is often described as the most Jewish of the four gospels and I would agree with this statement but not with what scholars and readers have often implied from this statement. For much of the history of Christian interpretation of scriptures had been plagued by readings that are at best unfair portrayals of Judaism and at their worst strongly anti-Jewish. Although the church continued to recognize the Hebrew Scriptures as a part of the Christian cannon, their usage was often either used for constructing a salvation history in which the election of the Jewish people is merely one step along the process of God’s eventual creation of the church or the Hebrew Scriptures became places where the interpreter of scriptures looked for prophecies (in the sense of telling the future rather than the way prophesy often works in the Hebrew Scriptures) that pointed either to Jesus or helped interpret the words of Revelation to help the diligent student predict the end of the world. When people have referred to Matthew as being the most Jewish of the gospels what is often understood by this term is it is the most judgmental or legalistic of the gospels. This fundamentally misunderstands both Judaism (both ancient and modern) and the Gospel of Matthew.

One of the gifts of spending much of the last seven years engaging both Christian and Jewish scholars on the Hebrew Scriptures and being engaged in dialogues with multiple faith traditions is that it has given me a number of insights into the way the New Testament in general, and the gospel of Matthew in particular engages the language, stories, poetry and the law of the Hebrew Scriptures. For me the gospels and Paul’s letters have become much richer documents as I’ve seen how they attempt to use the language of the scriptures (and at the time the New Testament is written the only scriptures they have are the books that make up the Hebrew Scriptures or the Old Testament as many Christians know them.) The God that the gospels and Paul point to is the same passionate God of Israel.

People who come to these reflections are coming from different levels of familiarity with the study of scripture and particularly to some of things that are helpful in approaching the gospels. The introduction will talk about some of the perspectives I will be using in this reading. There will be times throughout this work where I will retranslate certain passages because their current translation encourages us to read Matthew in a way that is more judgmental than the Greek is: for example at the end of chapter five of Matthew, during the Sermon on the Mount, the NRSV states: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5: 48) but the word translated perfect does not mean perfect, the word telios is a word that means having attained a goal or completion. To translate this as perfection takes most people into an accounting or courtroom like usage but what Matthew is probably attempting to communicate is something closer to: “Be complete like your Father in heaven is complete” which fits the context better, even if it may be a little harder to comprehend and force us to think about things differently. Another phrase that I will change throughout occurs most famously in Matthew 14:31 when Peter attempts to come to Jesus on water. This is Jesus’ response to Peter in the NRSV, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” which in English sounds judgmental, its hard to say ‘you of little faith’ in a kind and compassionate way but the Greek oligopistos behind this term is simply an adjective with an implied second person object. I will render this ‘little faith one’ which seems to me a term of endearment, especially when you realize that the object of this adjective is always Jesus’ disciples in Matthew.

I am heavily indebted to those who have studied Matthew and the gospels across the history of the church. There are several passages in Matthew that I will suggest a reading that goes against the grain of many interpretations of Matthew. I will also be building on the work of different scholars who at different points have seen some of the things I am seeing. For those of you making this journey with me welcome to this experiment to test out some of the theories I have about how to read this witness to the life and teaching of Jesus. I am not sure at this point whether the reflections will continue to follow the pattern of one reflection per chapter, since they may become quite lengthy at times, or the more common pattern of breaking down the individual chapters into pericopes (smaller sections like those frequently read in worship).

If you are reading these reflections, I pray that they can help give some insight not only in the Gospel of Matthew but also to the object of Matthew’s description: Jesus. I will occasionally be writing about things debated among academics, but I am attempting to write in a matter that can be heard by people in the congregations that I’ve served. I do this out of a sense of love for the gospels and the witness they bear to both Jesus and the life he attempts to direct us to. The name Matthew means disciple, and Matthew’s gospel attempts to call the readers to engage with the first disciples as they attempt to follow Jesus through his life and beyond his resurrection. Generations later may we continue to come to take Jesus’ yoke upon ourselves and learn from him for rather than being heavy and hard to bear it is light and intended for us to find rest for our souls.

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Dating and Relationships in a Digital Age

Session 7: Dating and Relationships in a Digital Age

This is the seventh part of an eight-part series on faith in a digital age. 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 2010 a relationship that I thought would last suddenly ended. I had been married for thirteen years, had two kids and suddenly I found myself a single dad and for the first time since my early twenties having to enter the world of dating and relationships again. When I reentered this world, I found that it had changed dramatically and one of the big portions of this change was the introduction of dating platforms like Match, eHarmony and many more. I would find the right person several years later and I have been happily remarried for the last couple of years but as I was thinking about the scope of this class, I thought it was important to revisit this time and think about how the digital age has changed the way we think about relationships and connection. How do we find friends, date and build the connections we need to have a good life?

In the past we met most of our friends and relationships in life through the communities we were a part of: school, church, neighborhoods, hobbies and groups of people who shared either a common goal or beliefs. Occasionally a friend or a relation would play matchmaker and connect you with someone who they felt would be a good possibility for a partner or you would meet someone at a bar or dancehall or other common gathering place, but even there you had some context for the person you were meeting. Our social networks were the places where we met people. If you lived in a smaller community you may have known everyone who was a possibility to date or to be friends with, it was a smaller pool but you knew all the fish swimming in it. In a city like the one I currently live in, Frisco a suburb or Dallas, where not only is the population larger but people also come home, close their garages and may not interact with their neighbors it can be difficult to form connections. Many people spend longer at work and retreat to home and may not feel like they have time to be connected with a larger group where they can be in a relationship with.

As we discuss dating platforms, I’m going to draw an analogy from social media and its world of connection: there is a difference in the level of connection I have from someone who I interact with on a daily basis and a friend who may know me predominantly through social media. I may have several hundred Facebook friends from the places I’ve lived, schools I’ve attended, congregations I’ve served, my time in the military and frequently people who I’ve interacted with once or twice. The pool of connections is broader but it is also not as deep: I have more contacts but many of those contacts are fairly weak connections. As we look into relationships that begin on a dating platform you are beginning with a broader pool of candidates who may be possible connections but the initial connection with any of them is much weaker than even a person you meet one time in another way. One of the differences of beginning that first meeting is that you have less shared connection and investment as the relationship begins.

With online dating you do have a broader pool and that can be a positive thing, especially if you are a person who is for various reasons forbidden from forming relationships in the places you spend most of your time. As a pastor, for example, I spend most of my time working with the congregation I serve but for many ethical reasons I am not allowed to date people who are a part of the congregation I serve. There is the possibility that you will meet people who you would never meet otherwise. The other reality is that many people feel permission to be more vulnerable interacting through a dating site and initially conversing through messages and texts rather than the awkward interactions face to face that we may have. We are all seeking connection with another person, we all want to be loved and valued and desired and sometimes it is easier to take a risk when you are interacting with people who seem to be in the same position of seeking a relationship or a connection.

With the larger pool you will encounter rejection and you will be ignored sometimes. There are times where you will send a message to someone or several people and wonder if any of them are still on the site or whether their profiles are just remnants leftover from people who once were seekers. I know that I can be a little naïve, but I ended up in one situation where I was chatting with someone and then they invited me to another site which I quickly realized was an adult site and I let them know that wasn’t what I was looking for but there is always the possibility that we can go looking for love and find something different, people who are using the site for commercial reasons. People can find and stumble into things they wouldn’t otherwise.

As we discussed in our discussion of email, we employ sorting methods because we are overwhelmed with information and we do the same thing with the broader pool in online dating. We frequently evaluate people very quickly to see if they might be a possible connection and the most common method of sorting is based on photographs and the person’s physical looks. Some sites, like Tinder, are almost exclusively based on looks. Yet one of the things that came out of my discussions with my congregation about what they valued about the person they were in a relationship with was that looks were not the primary thing: it was an action, a kindness, something in the person’s character, something that took a little longer to see that made them the person they wanted to spend their life with. I’m not saying that looks are unimportant, but they are not the only or even the main thing that will make a relationship last.

When people put a profile up on a dating site it is also helpful to remember it is a representation of the person, it is not the actual person. As we discussed in our last two discussions when building a virtual identity, we place out on the internet what we want others to see. Sometimes people will talk about themselves in ways that may not be accurate and there are times when even a person’s pictures may not be a good representation of who they are. We often see pictures taken at the best angle and in the best lighting and they may not be recent pictures. There is always the possibility that the person we are corresponding with is not entirely who they seem to be.

While the broader pool can be a good thing, I think it is helpful to bring up the paradox of choice when we think about dating online. Most people believe that more choices will make them happier but psychologists when studying choice actually find the reverse: more choices make us less satisfied with the decision we eventually make. For a popular culture reference I’m going to turn to shows like the Bachelor or the Bachelorette where a man or woman is surrounded by approximately twenty attractive and successful potential partners and through a series of experiences and dates they are expected to pick their eventual spouse. You would think with a capable and attractive set of choices that the person would ultimately end up with a partner they would be happy with but these relationships rarely last. Part of the dynamic of choice is when we are presented with several attractive choices, we often think about the choice we didn’t make when we are engaging the choice we did, so on a first date you might be evaluating the person you are sitting with at the same time you consider others you interacted with before meeting this person. It can cheapen the engagement we are in if we are continually wondering how this person compares with others who may be possibilities. One of the other dynamics I experienced was that often people were dating multiple people at the same time attempting to see who would be the best fit for a relationship (or they may not have been seeking a single relationship). Ultimately, we all have to set boundaries of what we are willing to do based on what we are looking for but it is helpful to realize that not everyone is seeking the same thing.

One of the things in society that has changed dramatically is the age when people enter into permanent relationships. For women the average age of a first marriage is now 27.4 and for a man it is 29.5 years old, which is a long time for people to spend dating and seeking. One of the struggles this introduces in a religious and ethical realm is that most religions expected people to wait to have sex until after people married which was easier when the age of marriage was closer to the age when people become sexually interested. When societal pressures of education and career have postponed the age of marriage it makes this a struggle for a lot of people.

I have found that people often enter into relationships with unrealistic expectations. Part of my work as a pastor is counseling couples who are getting married and then also helping couples who are struggling in a relationship and it has caused me to continue to look at what makes relationships work. Sometimes the language we use around relationships gives us this expectation: we look for a soulmate or someone who completes me and if we expect another person to complete us, they will let us down. They will let us down not because they are bad people or because they do anything wrong, but if there is something that you are expecting another person to fill up in you, if they continually have to fill up your sense of worthiness, they will be unable to always do so. The initial emotions of a relationship can make us feel whole but nobody can sustain that level of feeling throughout a long and healthy relationship. It will be exhausting for the partner of a person who has to make a person feel worthy and loved and whole all the time.

I’ve also seen lots of times where the internet can interfere with relationships that have existed for a long time. When you enter into a relationship with someone you build trust and you put a lot of energy into the relationship, but our partner cannot fill all of our needs-we still need connections with friends, family, and people we work and interact with. Yet, there need to be boundaries for trust to remain intact. Unfortunately, I’ve seen too many relationships broken because someone began seeking something that should’ve been kept within the relationship with another person. Sometimes this happens in the digital world, where a person in a relationship stays connected on a dating platform or reconnects with an ‘old flame’ on Facebook or another social media platform. Another struggle I’ve seen couples have is with the availability of sexual material online and couple encounter this differently. For some couples this may be viewed as a breaking of trust and others it is not, but it is something that can cause struggles in relationships and can make a partner feel unattractive and unloved.

Trust is something that can easily be broken. Trust is really the currency in any relationship and to use Brené Brown’s metaphor of trust being a jar of marbles that we slowly fill up different things impact that trust that we have. Something like an affair shatters the jar and the marbles are lost and that is why it is so difficult to rebuild a relationship after an affair, because trust is lost and it takes a long time to rebuild that trust. Other times trust is lost is lost in little moments where the person feels ignored, not valued, and feel that we are distant from them. Trust is built in those moments when we notice and pay attention to what is important to the other person.

We are all people who are formed for connection. We are all people who have value and worth but want that value and worth affirmed by others. Relationships can be both wonderful and challenging and the digital age presents both opportunities and challenges for relationships. It is easy to judge others on their relationship, but this is an area where people struggle throughout their lives. We want to be in a relationship but most of us have not been trained in how to make relationships work. It is hard work to build a relationship that will last.

Discussion Questions

  1. If you’ve had a relationship that lasted for a long period of time, what was it about that person that made you think they might be a good partner? Was there something they did or something about who they were that made them attractive to you?
  2. What is great about being in a relationship? What are challenges of being in a relationship?
  3. Have you ever had a time where having lots of choices seemed overwhelming or when you second guessed a choice you made? Have you ever experienced this in a relationship?
  4. How did someone earn your trust? Can you think of things that people did that made it hard to trust them?
  5. What interferes with relationships? What struggles do you think cause relationships to fail?
  6. Is there some wisdom about relationships that you would impart to your younger self based on your experiences?

 

 

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Psalm 51 Seeking the Possibility of Redemption

Palma Giovane, Prophet Nathan ermahnt Konig David (1622)

Psalm 51

<To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.>
1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.
5 Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
6 You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.
14 Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
15 O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
18 Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,
19 then you will delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.

The relationship between the speaker and God has been broken because of the psalmist’s own actions and there is no future without God’s forgiveness. The superscription gives us one possible moment to read the psalm from: the moment when David is confronted by the prophet Nathan about his adultery with Bathsheba and the arrangement of the murder of her husband, Uriah. (2 Samuel 11-12) This moment of betrayal of both David’s responsibilities to his people and the favor that God has bestowed upon him changes everything: trust has been broken, the innocent bore the cost of David’s actions and in the words of this psalm David’s iniquity, sin and transgressions have broken the relationship with God. Yet, this psalm could apply to any experience of guilt and shame where one’s actions have failed match one’s called identity as a person of faith. When a person who sought God’s heart stumbles, when a righteous one commits iniquity, when the one who once was clean is now polluted by sin and when one’s transgressions place a wall between the transgressor and God these words allow the penitent one to seek the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation with God and a return to their former state of grace.

The hope of the penitent lies in the character of God outlines in verse one: God is a God of steadfast love and abundant mercy. There characteristics of God’s character are matched against the trilogy of terms for acts against God: iniquity, sin and transgression. The sinner in the psalm stands permanently marked by their sin and in need of cleansing. They have become defined by their actions and their guilt shows them how their actions have not matched the calling they bore before the people. The guilty one was a righteous one whose entire life was lived in the presence of God and now their actions which may have once been concealed from others were seen by God and they confess that God is justified in God’s judgment of them. Others may have been injured by the psalmist’s actions (and the in the narrative of David and Bathsheba a family was broken, a man was killed, and David failed to be the king he was supposed to be) but here the brokenness is between the psalmist and God and the hope rests in God’s cleansing and restoration.

The guilt of the actions has transformed the person at their deepest level. Everything of who they are is now tainted by a part of themselves they wouldn’t have believed before. They question everything about their story from their conception to the present. They have been transformed into a sinner, one who is separated from God and others and is defined by their transgressions. The psalmist probably doesn’t see their actions as a result of “original sin” passed on from generation to generation but instead views their entire life under the judgment and pollution of their iniquity. They know they need to be purged, cleansed and washed by God in order to remove the stain that their sin causes them to bear. They know that they need to learn truth after their lies, wisdom after the folly of their innermost heart, a holy spirit to replace their sinful one. They need to be recreated as a new being in order to have a future beyond their brokenness. Yet the God of mercy and steadfast love could forgive the people of Israel when they worshipped a golden calf (Exodus 32-34) and while cleansing oneself and receiving a new heart, spirit and future are impossible for the psalmist on their own, they are the type of action that a merciful and forgiving God does. The psalmist hopes for a return to their life in God’s presence where God no longer looks upon their sins but upon the redeemed sinner.

From their place of shame, the psalmist attempts to barter with God. I know when I was growing up that I was taught not to barter with God but the more of the scriptures I read the more I see places like this psalm where a person attempts to barter with God, and I’ve had to rethink this. For the speaker, they will teach, sing, declare and offer right sacrifice If God will restore the relationship. The psalmist doesn’t have much to offer beyond their acknowledgment of their sin which broke the relationship and their promise to live better in the future but the offering a broken spirit, broken and contrite heart. They are hoping through an exchange with God of receiving a new spirit and heart in return for their broken spirit and heart. God becomes for the poet the surgeon who can place in them a new heart and renew a right spirit. Perhaps by the penitent’s witness the good that God does for them will also extend to the rest of the people and allow for Zion’s pleasure and strength to be renewed. As we saw in the previous psalm the sacrifices and burnt offerings are not needed by God, but just as a broken heart and spirit were preconditions in the psalm for forgiveness and renewal the new orientation of the speaker places sacrifices and worship as acts of thanksgiving for the God who blots out transgressions, washes away the iniquity and cleanses the sin because of God’s steadfast love and abundant mercy.

 

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Social Media and the Projecting and Mining of the Digital Self

Session 6: Social Media and the Projecting and Mining of the Digital Self

This is the sixth part of a now eight-part series on faith in a digital age. 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.

We discussed briefly in session four about our digital identity, how we place a reflection of ourselves out in the digital world when we engage with the internet and with digital technology. As we enter the world of social media the projection of ourselves into the digital world encompasses a larger portion of our life. We project an avatar of ourselves, an icon or representation of what we choose to reveal of ourselves to represent ourselves in this digital world. We share certain pieces of our lives and our network of connections so others can see. At the same time, we project this representation of ourselves that projection is being examined and mined by others, including advertisers, to understand how to relate to us. Prior to social media what we shared digitally, with some exceptions, was passive-others may gather information about searches or websites we went to but normally we weren’t voluntarily sharing this information. With the beginning of social media sites, we began actively sharing a lot of data: from pictures to political opinions, from the places we go and the food we eat to our connections with other people. We can use this to stay connected but we also receive a lot of junk. People value pictures and the connections we have with the people who are important to us, but we also have to sort through a lot of information that may not be valuable to us.

When we use social media, it can create a lot of strong feelings for the user. We can feel connected, valued, loved or conversely, we can feel disconnected, angry, shamed or excluded. Sometimes it leads us into temptation by copying life we see others showing us and it can also make us feel inadequate. Other times, it can feel like we are being taunted or bullied. There is always the possibility that when we share a piece of our life digitally that we will be judged, just like we could be in the real world. All of these feelings of happiness and unhappiness are real and yet for many people there is a strong almost addictive draw to these platforms.

We can’t talk about social media without discussing the basic human need for connection. As humans we are social creatures and our brains are wired to want connection with other people. We want to feel liked, loved, valued, safe and seen by others. We will do some incredible things for this connection. This is why young people will join a gang, because by being a part of the gang they have a family of people and they have some value. This is part of the reason that people will go through the physical ordeal and sometimes hazing to be a part of a team or a group. It is also one of the reasons that we will go to incredible lengths for those who we love as family and those who we have romantic feelings for. One of the things that has been coming out in research lately is one of the greatest predictors of longevity is a strong set of social connections. A lack of social connections has been shown to be a stronger predictor of an early death than many things like environmental pollution or smoking.

When we feel connected it is a powerful thing to our brains. Think back to a time when you fell in love and because of the love you felt everything felt right in the world. When your brain feels safe, valued, and loved the chemical reaction in your brain is a powerful thing which is one of the reasons we seek these feelings so much. Conversely, when we’ve had our heart broken, when we’ve been rejected or ridiculed or shamed this is an equally powerful negative experience. We seek connection and we fear disconnection and sometimes the fear of disconnection is even greater than our fear of physical harm or death.

To talk about connection, I’m going to rely on the work of Brené Brown who teaches at the University of Houston in the Social Work department. In her research she looked for what made people feel connected, but when she asked about connection people would share their experiences of disconnection. These experiences of disconnection she would eventually come to label as shame. She defines shame as, “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experiencing of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love or belonging.” (emphasis authors) and she lays out twelve categories of shame that frequently emerge in her research:

  • Appearance and Body Image
  • Money and Work
  • Motherhood/Fatherhood
  • Family
  • Parenting
  • Mental and Physical Health
  • Addiction
  • Sex
  • Aging
  • Religion
  • Surviving Trauma
  • Being Stereotyped of Labeled(Brown, 2012, p. 69)

Some of these twelve categories of shame are organized along gender lines and social expectations of gender roles. For example, appearance and body image is more likely to be a source of shame for women while money and work is more likely to be a source of shame for men.

Women and men experience shame differently. Brené Brown describes shame for women as a web of competing expectations and demands: how they are supposed to look, how they are supposed to act, how they are supposed to parent, how they are supposed to balance all the expectations that are put upon them and to make it look easy. This is made more challenging because the expectations are not uniform. For example, women when critiqued on mothering are viewed by widely differing standards and often judged because they are not mothering the way another believes is the right way to mother. These criticisms or places where they don’t conform to these expectations often strike at their greatest places of insecurity.

We often neglect the way that men experience shame and for men it is often a subject that we are unable to talk about. Brené Brown in her work share the story of when earlier in her career she had only researched women and shame and then after a conference a man asked her, “have you studied men and shame?” She admitted she hadn’t and then he went on to explain how men have deep shame but are unable to express it both among other men and with women. For men shame is about failure: a failure to be strong enough, good enough, or to provide enough for others. As I mentioned above, money and work are a strong shame trigger for men and so if a man’s wife comes home and comments about the nice car that her friend’s husband bought it can unintentionally send a message to the man that because he is unable to provide the same or better, he is not valued or loved. Most men learn at an early age that it is socially unacceptable to show weakness or fear. I can remember a point in my elementary school days when I learned I wasn’t allowed to cry anymore and it was reinforced by both peers and family members.

One of the reasons for talking about this with social media is that we go to social media longing for connection and we may experience disconnection. We want to feel good and safe and valued and we may find messages that reinforce how we are not living into the expectations of others or how we are not good, strong or able to provide enough. We may find those things that play on our shame triggers and we are also comparing ourselves to the best projection of someone else. We compare our entire lives to the snapshot that others choose to share of their lives. We measure ourselves unfairly against others without having access to the whole picture of their lives.

The people who designed social media know that we are connection seeking beings and the media are designed to encourage our continued usage of their platforms. When people like or comment on something that we do it feels good to our brains, it feels like we are connected and valued and seen. Because of that desire for connection we do sometimes modify our behavior to seek the approval of others, even when we may not believe that it is the correct thing.

This leads us back to the discussion of lowered social boundaries that I initially introduced when we discussed texting in the previous session. It often feels less stressful to share something through a digital technology because we don’t have to see how the words impact the other person’s body language or voice and there is not the danger of physical consequences to what we say (at least not in the moment). I believe this lowered set of social boundaries also helps to explain some of the bullying or trolling that happens on social media. We may believe that we aren’t interacting with a real person and so our words don’t matter, but they do. Many in the congregations I’ve served have heard my repurposing of the children’s proverb, “sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me” to “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will send me to therapy.” Words, even online words, can cause real emotional damage. We come in seeking connection and then someone else for their own reasons bullies or insults us in ways that they would never do to our face. Sometimes when we lower our social boundaries, we encounter the basest parts of our self and others. Also, these things are now recorded and we may have to address these things at a later point of our life.

All social media are designed to keep you engaged and to do that they mine your digital projection to figure out what you want to see. Facebook, for example, will categorize you as extremely liberal, moderately liberal, moderate, moderately conservative or extremely conservative and will attempt to tailor your feed based around those political values. One of the dangers of this is that we can be surrounded in our digital world by people who think and believe the way that we do to the exclusion of other viewpoints. This ‘bunker effect’ can shield us from interactions that may challenge our viewpoint and we may be encouraged to view those who think differently than us as our enemy or people unworthy of consideration. Adding into this picture some powerful mental forces like ‘confirmation bias’ we can become susceptible to partial truths and sometimes outright lies that fit within our worldview. This has had major effects on our political dialogue and has increased the polarization we experience in the world.

Social media are advertising platforms, they are not news platforms. They are designed to increase the projection of information for profit. In a profit model where clicks on a website result in greater payments we’ve seen the practice of ‘click-baiting’ evolve to get people to go to an article based on the headline. Social media does not censor things based on their verifiability. There are some practices they have introduced after the last election cycle but ultimately, they are designed to maximize profit and they are not incentivized to remove things that masquerade as news that may merely be opinion. This can present us with a very skewed vision of reality and we may find ourselves confused by the boundaries between someone’s opinion and a verified fact.

Social media are designed for addictiveness. Some of this goes back to our discussion of the internet and platforms like Netflix removing the ‘stopping cues’ to keep you engaged on the platform for longer. Facebook for example, has no stopping cues to keep you from continuing to scroll down the screen and stay on their platform. Some other media like Snap Chat or Instagram reward you for continuing to engage through things like ‘streams’ which are broken if you have a day where you don’t engage. These all send subtle clues to our mind to come back and to seek connection again on these platforms. The technology is not evil, but it does use some of the basic pieces of our psychology to keep us engaged.

As a Christian as I think about social media, I reflect upon the language of Genesis 1 where we are created in the image of God. As Genesis narrates the creation narrative, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1: 27) A person’s value comes not from how other people value them but instead, from a faith perspective, from the reality that they share some portion of the image of God. Especially from my Christian faith it goes back to the language of my baptism where, from my Lutheran Christian theological perspective, I have been marked with the cross of Christ forever and sealed by God’s Holy Spirit.  I am reminded that my identity begins with the reality that my life has been claimed by God and that I am a child of God. That doesn’t mean I am immune to the desire for connection or the feelings of shame, but it does help me to remind myself that I have value and worth already and nothing can take that away. For me it means that even when I disagree with someone, I don’t attack them in a way that attempts to shame them or demean them.

Social media can enable us to connect with a broad network of people. It can be a place where we choose to share the things that we find meaningful and valuable. It can also be place where we encounter disconnection and where we can experience hurt and shame. I think the technology can be a place where we do a lot of positive things but like any technology it helps to understand some of the dangers involved.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are things that you share on social media? What don’t you share?
  2. How do you feel after being on social media? What made you feel that way?
  3. Can you think of a time where you felt shame? What triggered that feeling?
  4. Which of the categories of shame seem to impact you more deeply? What messages from advertising and from others reinforce those messages?
  5. When have you seen social media misused? What do you like and dislike about the platforms you use?
  6. What ways have you found helpful to have conversations with people who think or believe differently than you?
Posted in Faith in a Digital Age | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

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?

Posted in Church, Faith in a Digital Age | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

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.

 

Posted in Biblical Reflections, Psalms | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

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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