Monday, February 11, 2019

Goodbye, "Social" Media

There's a chance I'll change my mind and not stick with it forever, but I'm planning to quit "social media." For a long time, these platforms have felt like more of a drag and hindrance to me than anything positive in my life. And more recently, I'm increasingly convinced that they're worse than neutral, but actively working against us as individuals and against society as a whole.

Quitting Instagram was easy for me. I had an account for a while, but really only used it to quickly post some behind-the-scenes photos of my daughter's wedding and the accompanying family activities. I'm of the generation that still uses computers more than phones, so it never really suited my style.

Quitting Twitter was also easy. The original promise of seeing short messages from anybody anywhere in the world about current topics was intriguing. But the noise level was so high, and the format so restricting, I never found Twitter the best way to get information about anything.

Facebook has been harder to leave. For me, there are real advantages that I can't get so easily anywhere else. I've enjoyed staying in touch with family and friends around the country and the world, through photos and updates. Along with that, of course, there's been a lot of noise from Facebook's own ads and promotions, and the challenge of filtering out topics I don't care about. Facebook has removed some of the tools I used to use, for example a newsfeed based on one of my lists of people, so I could quickly check on family, church members, or local organizations. I lived with that filtering challenge for quite a while.

But lately, it's become more clear what other effects Facebook is having on me, and on us all. I've found that I've given up on having any kind of constructive conversation there. Facebook's format and limited tracking tools mean that anything useful quickly gets swept away in a current of useless stuff. On the other hand, it's all too easy to get sucked into a bitter, unproductive argument that strains friendships over points so trivial that we'd never worry about them in real life. And truly fake news still gets spread widely, stirring people up with no hope of withdrawing or debunking it.

Facebook is also guilty of several really serious security problems, and of going behind our backs and breaking ethical standards and its own written guidelines to make money off of us. It's been a long time since I've trusted Facebook with my data. And I'm tired of being milked for ad money and marketing purposes.

Worst of all, in my mind, is Facebook's effect on the way we all relate to one another. From the beginning, it's been obvious that a Facebook presence requires each person to put together a certain online persona, which is always only one limited image of who we really are. Now, we're learning that Facebook's algorithms for choosing what we see and don't see result in an experience we have less control of than ever. We're being steered in certain directions, without even being aware of it.

Facebook's framework for human interaction has led to some truly damaging actions in the real world. Two big events are the election of Donald Trump, in which Facebook played a significant role, and incitement of lethal violence against Rohingya people in Myanmar. Facebook keeps denying any responsibility. And their little efforts to rein in destructive posts will never keep up with the work of people who understand the power of the platform to sway people and divide us against each other.

So Facebook has become a toxic, time-wasting, malignant presence in the world. For a while, I looked for ways to make a difference, but I've given up hope that anything I could do within Facebook's system would matter at all. EXCEPT for deleting my Facebook account and getting out. I'm not willing to be a part of it anymore.

I'll miss the contacts with family and friends that I've gotten used to through Facebook. But I hope quitting Facebook will give me motivation (and more free time!) to connect with you in real life. And I feel confident that quitting will reduce my temptation to "slacktivism" (posting a rant about an issue on social media, but not actually doing anything substantial about that issue) and force me to think of a better way to make a real difference.

I'll still be posting semi-occasionally on this blog, just not adding a link on Facebook. I hope to see you here. Or, better yet, in real life! Goodbye, "social" media.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

A Quiet Christmas Moment

For a long time now, I've really enjoyed a moment of quiet early Christmas morning.

Sometimes, that moment has come on my drive home from an 11:00pm Christmas Eve worship service. I enjoyed pointing out that as we were lighting candles after Communion and getting ready to sing "Silent Night," we were already a few minutes into Christmas Day. I was usually the last or near-last to leave the church building. On the way home, I'd stop by the edge of a snowy field and just listen to the quiet for a little while.

Today, the moment is watching the sun come up outside as I sit near the Christmas tree. Sheryl and the cat and dog are doing better than me at enjoying the chance to sleep in. I've flipped through Facebook, smiling to see notes and photos and greetings from family and friends around the world. Then, just a moment of quiet: sitting, watching, listening, being.

This quiet Christmas moment feels like the heart of Christmas to me. On the historic church's calendar, Christmas is a season that runs from December 25 through January 5 (the "twelve days" of the carol), bookended by the dates chosen to mark the birth of Jesus and the visit from the magi. There are lots of traditions for celebrating the season. And the church adds the season of Advent, which starts four Sundays before Christmas and offers a countdown, focusing on watching, waiting, expecting, hoping. In our time, Advent has also come to compete with the commercial Christmas season, which used to start on "Black Friday" but now has October running scared and September looking over its shoulder. I'm very low on the spectrum of excitement about commercial Christmas, because it's so pushy about getting into a particular mood. It's an artificial upper stimulant whose high has a sick, unreal edge, and whose low sinks into body fat and lethargy, both over-fullness and over-emptiness.

I appreciate the churchy Christmas and Advent seasons more than commercial Christmas, because they're at least honest enough to include some shocking, disturbing counterpoints to the rejoicing. But they, too, have been constructed to help us human beings manage Christmas in an orderly way.

So rather than any kind of season, I prefer looking for a quiet Christmas moment. It's as if Jesus has let himself in and clicked the door shut behind himself. No big announcement or fanfare is necessary. But everything has changed. The theological word incarnation means that in him, the full nature of divinity has entered into human life equally fully. God has become human. The realm of spiritual things beyond our understanding has become embodied in human anatomy and society. As with any birth, there's a time of expectation and preparation, and a time of coming to grips with the aftermath of the blessed event, for worse and for better. Time is warped so that there's a definite "before" and "after."

And then there is also a definite "during." There's a moment when Jesus' coming-into-human-life is happening right now. Into our longing for meaning comes the love of God. Into our darkness comes the light of the world. Into our frustration about unrealized potential comes infinite fulfillment.

The beautiful thing about Christmas is that it bears witness to the reality of the incarnation, the presence of Christ in every moment of life. A quiet Christmas moment, a moment of acknowledging and peacefully abiding in the presence of the living Christ, can happen at any time, on any day, to any person, in any place and situation. Sometimes it's just easiest for us to be aware that we're experiencing such a moment when the calendar says December 25, and when we've arranged our schedules so that we think in terms of the "before" and the "after," opening ourselves up more than usual for the "during."

I've never had anything happen during one of my quiet Christmas moments that I would call "profound." My mood is different from year to year. There's a unique mix of emotions each time: gratitude, openness, expectation, awe, humility, connection with people and places past. I feel that God and the universe are acknowledging my reality, which helps me return the favor. I have a place and a time, I belong, I matter. My life is part of the great, abundant Life of the world.

I don't expect everybody else to understand or mark Christmas in this way. We all have our own needs and joys and ways of making sense of the world and finding our place in it. I will just offer these thoughts about a moment of quiet for Christmas, in case anybody reading this is feeling left out of the celebrations of seasons. If the trappings of commercial Christmas are leaving you unsatisfied, and the ruliness of the churchy Advent and Christmas seasons aren't doing it for you, I just hope you know that that is okay. There's nothing wrong with you. You're sensing that there is something more. And you're right. In fact, I think that the very awareness of "something more" is part of what it feels like when Jesus has opened the door a crack. The real thing, the heart of Christmas, may be closer than you realize. It may not be dramatic. It may be barely noticeable at all. It is not a manufactured thing. It is not a fleeting chance that you might miss. Christmas is for now, and forever. It will be there when you're ready for it, and when you need it. In any moment when you're aware of a "before" and an "after," you can find a quiet Christmas moment in the "during." And you can draw strength and life from that moment any time.

This Christmas, I know a lot of people who are happy and content and peaceful in warm moments with family and friends. (I've seen your Facebook posts!) And I know people who are grieving the death of a loved one, in the hospital or in jail, in the middle of a ferocious battle of one kind or another, at a place in life that's very painful. Some are welcoming a new life into the family; some are in the process of dying; some are wondering what the heck is going on.

Christmas is for all of us, all of these situations. Christ is here. The love of God, the light of the world, the presence of the divine, are with you right here and now. You have a place and a time. You belong. You matter. Your life is of immeasurable value. Sometimes the world and our own minds conspire to bend us to believe otherwise. But in every moment, Christmas bears the truth: "To you is born this day a Savior, the Messiah, the Lord."

If you need such a moment, may Christmas come to you now. Quietly, unobtrusively. Not wrenching the world around to suit the desires of you or anybody else - but instead, meeting you in your reality, and warping time so that in addition to what you see as "before" and "after," you'll also know a "during," a small moment of knowing and trusting that God is with you. Such a moment can come at any time, and doesn't have to last long. But it can bring strength and life and love and courage and hope and gratitude and even joy, to last a long, long time.

A quiet Christmas moment to everyone who needs one.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Some Thoughts on Law and Love

No Jeff Sessions, Sarah Sanders, and Donald Trump, you cannot use God's Word to justify the evil policy of arresting everyone who comes to our borders and taking away their children.

Here's a good perspective on how this reading of Romans 13 is twisted and perverted:
From the article: "It's flat-out irresponsible (for Sessions) to use it without attention to the broader context. It's basically practical advice: While you're doing this, sure, go ahead and pay your taxes, give the government its due. But taken as a whole, Romans stands as a counter to unjust government and unjust rule."

And here is Stephen Colbert's take on this week's immigration evil:
Colbert quotes Romans 13:9-10: "The commandments ... are summed up in this word, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law." And he suggests, for this Father's Day weekend: "Call your elected representatives and demand they do something." 

I did. Will you?

And finally, lest anybody think that it's just knee-jerk liberal complaining against Sessions' and Sanders' use of Romans 13, here's a post, from a conservative organization in 2009, showing some of the evil history of the abuse of that passage:

For Lutherans, notice that this is particularly a problem for our tradition as Nazi leaders bent some of Luther's writings to lend support to the move that became the holocaust.

The article concludes: "Romans 13:1-7 cannot be made to apply in exactly the same way as it did to Paul's initial audience without grossly twisting its intent. In American law, the people which form the several states are the 'higher powers,' not the Federal government. Of course, in a religious sense, they are to submit themselves to the ultimate "higher power,' which is the risen and exalted Christ (Matthew 28:18; Revelation 11:15). Therefore, as constituents of the political sovereignty they are to be self-governed by God's Law, and are thus bound by Scripture to disobey any laws or statutes that interfere with this submission to the Creator."

I'm sure I wouldn't agree with everything on this site, but in this case, I think they said it well. God's love and God's law DO NOT call for children to be taken from families, for legal asylum applicants being arrested, or for human beings seeking a safe haven from danger to have their situation made worse.

Friday, January 19, 2018

To A Better Way

My last post here was angry and opinionated and full of profanity, and I've come to see that it was also very divisive. Some people agreed with it and loved it. Some people disagreed, and were offended. I've tried to talk in person about the issues I raised, and the way I raised them, with some people who had different points of view. I've tried to clam up for a while and listen more than I write or speak. This will be an ongoing process, but today feels like the right time to say my next piece. And it has to do with words of wisdom I heard from one friend, about finding "a better way."

In that conversation, "a better way" came to mean a hope that people who have strong feelings about important issues can rise above name-calling and blaming and seeing people of other opinions as just labels, or less than human in some way. There's too much of that kind of behavior. I saw the ironic and hypocritical "log in my own eye," as I was starting to engage in the same kind of behavior I've often criticized. I failed to make my point in a constructive way, and instead lashed out without compassion. I was contributing to deepening the divide of misunderstanding and hard feelings, instead of proactively working toward "a better way."

Looking back, I don't make any apology for my position. I don't even apologize for using profanity, as I still think the language I used is not as bad as the "dirty words" of empty "thoughts and prayers" we were hearing from some in leadership, and I hoped to reveal a problem with what shocks us and what doesn't. (If you made it through the whole post to the very end, hopefully you saw that there was indeed a point to using foul language. But basically I was just amplifying a technique Tony Campolo used much more elegantly years ago. For example, see, which quotes him in the 9th paragraph.)

I do apologize for making my point without a context of compassion or understanding for other points of view. I apologize for posting with that attitude of anger without having first prayed and reflected about it. And I apologize for not taking the time to consider how my words and attitude would affect everybody who read the post.

I believe there is a better way for us to talk about hot issues. And I believe that my call as a follower of Jesus, and subsequently as a pastor in his church, is to work on finding that better way myself, and to help others to find it too. I thank people who have responded positively, for showing me that there is a need for points of view like mine to be expressed. And I thank people who have responded negatively, for showing me that it makes a big difference how our points of view are expressed.

I'll mention a few signs of hope that we can move toward "a better way."

Believe it or not, one came from an online interaction involving Sarah Silverman, the comedian who's known for profanity and shock tactics. Take a few minutes and read for an example of how she's been responding to online "trolls" who try to insult her and trap her into a bitter battle of words. She responded to this man instead as a real person, taking the time to listen to him, and eventually helping find a way for him to address some of the problems in his life. That is a step to a better way.

I also recommend another piece I read recently,, which puts some science behind what common sense and experience tell us: online interactions are a lousy place for talking about difficult subjects. This doesn't mean I'll never post anything substantial again! But I will try to rein in the anger, and keep an attitude of human compassion for everybody on all sides. And I will keep looking for ways to have real-life, in-person conversations whenever I can. Those are steps to a better way.

A third inspiration for me comes from the recent women's movements to stop sexual harassment and to resist the ways the Trump administration works against the interests of women, families, minorities, and vulnerable people. It's hard to summarize these massive moments, but gets close. As we approach the anniversary of Donald Trump's inauguration and the demonstrations of resistance in response, there is much more going on than potshots and complaints on social media. There is an organized and supportive network that takes real action for change. In a similar way, for me and for all of us, instead of lashing out in frustration, engaging real people in the real world is a step to a better way.

And finally, a photo that says something powerful to me. This is a picture of a maple tree in our back yard in November. A few days before I took the photo, there was a strong windstorm that lasted 48 hours or so. I was impressed with how many leaves the wind had blasted out of the tree. Dozens of leaves had been forcefully blown away, clear out of our yard. Then came the morning of the first hard frost. There was hardly any wind at all, but when I went out in the morning, thousands of leaves had fallen. There was no massive force, just something in the cold that told the tree it was time to release the leaves. In the 48 hours of wind, maybe 10% of the leaves violently blew away. In the first few hours of a frosty dawn, 80% came down without incident.

So I'm still working on figuring out "a better way" for myself and all of us, in these challenging times. As I write this, Washington DC and the country are scrambling to figure out whether we'll have another government shutdown, and if so, what to do about it.

There has to be a better way. My faith in Christ tells me that it will be a way that's much more about compassion than violence, more about listening and understanding than ranting, more about discovering and doing what naturally leads to life and well-being for all than about pushing and ejecting and demanding and belittling.

Thank you to all who are helping make the move to a better way, for me, for those around me, for our country, and for the world. And thank you for helping me be a part of the move to a better way.