Curating and Confessing

I had never put those two words together before: "curated self." It's the self you would carefully construct for an exhibit in and art museum. It seems Facebook has created the world's biggest museum for such an exhibit. The Globe's Kathleen Burge used the phrase in "Overblown Facebook personas can leave friends deflated" on Tuesday's front page. "Facebook and other social media allow users to present a curated self, showing friends or the public a happier or more accomplished version of a person….the gap between reality and the Facebook version can be striking, and troubling, psychologists say."

Burke cites a University of Michigan study: “The finding was the more people used Facebook, the worse they felt, and the less satisfied they were with their lives.” She also cites Sherry Turkle , professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT and author of the book, “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other,” who said managing our online selves has grown more complex, expanding from Facebook to Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and other platforms.

Apparently, even spending a little time managing your profile raises your self-esteem. But when you look at others it goes down. “During the day, you look at your noncurated self. You live with your mistakes,” Turkle said. “On Facebook, you’re always the way you want to be.”

I never made much of myself. Not long after I joined Facebook a few years ago, I found that I didn't want to take the time to create much of an exhibit (profile). But I guess there was enough of me there behind the looking glass to generate some requests for friends (which grew and grew to about 19). My friends' expanding exhibits cried out for attention via email reminders to take a look and I grew weary. I finally took my exhibit down, preferring to remain a little more of a mystery and opting for more phone calls, emails and if possible face to face meetings to connect. I was a little hurt that no one noticed I had disappeared from the universe.

The Globe story led me to give thanks for the first thing we do in worship at the beginning of each week--confession. It's there because God's presence reveals things to us. In God's clarifying presence we see things about our lives that we might not see otherwise. When Isaiah had a dramatic encounter with God in the temple, his first response was confession. And it can be the same for us in our worship.

Some congregations no longer include a prayer of confession in their worship because the practice is considered too "negative." They contend that people have enough difficulties in their lives without the church adding to the burden. But confession is not about adding a burden. Quite the opposite. It is about being unburdened. There is no joy in denial. But there can be great joy in receiving forgiveness.

As Christians we don't need to traffic in denial. We can afford to be realists. We are free to face the truth about ourselves: good and bad are inextricably intertwined within us. Sometimes we act nobly, but even then our motivations can be mixed. This is not a hopeless admission. We are free to be realists because our hope is in God. In confession, we rely not on our own goodness, but on God's forgiveness. The God in whose presence we see our lives with jarring clarity at the same time shows us that we are loved, nonetheless.

Two proclaimers of God's love I know happen to have Facebook pages. One is our intern Eric Worringer (700 friends) and another is a former intern, the soon-to-be-famous-if not-already Keith Anderson (1400 friends). They use their exhibits not so much for self-promotion but to share deep and interesting things with the world. I humbly submit that they look like masterpieces to me. Look them up.

Gambling/Casinos

"'All things are lawful,' but not all things are beneficial." 1 Corinthians 10:23

Twenty years ago when I was a pastor in Quincy, the Boston Globe started a four part series on the ever expanding Massachusetts Lottery. In the first story on a Sunday the reporter stated that over all the years since it began in 1971, the church had never made a fuss. This really bothered me. Quincy was and is a lottery haven with lots of users, and I often encountered seemingly poor senior citizens at local convenience stores spending astonishing amounts of money on scratch tickets. The nearby Catholic church had Mass. Lottery posters on the walls of its bingo hall. The Globe series combined with the local Lottery scene started a fire of protest within my Protestant Lutheran soul.

That week of the series I called around to my small circle of colleagues and invited them to stage a protest with me against the Lottery at its nearby headquarters in Braintree. All but one (19 of 20) agreed to come along. We wrote up 95 Theses on the Power and Efficacy of the Lottery, borrowing a form of protest used by Martin Luther who wasn't fond of the corrupt way the Church raised funds from the poor. Our plan was to enter the lobby, ask for a meeting with the Commissioner and deliver our complaints. If we were denied we would sings stewardship hymns with gusto.

As luck would have it, we crashed a cake-cutting party to launch a new game called Keno. The lobby was packed with Lottery supporters and the press was out in force. We were greeted by the Commissioner in the lobby and made our statement. Sadly, there was no singing, but our concerns were in the Globe the next day and we were glad for having made a serious statement.

A few years later when casinos were proposed, the Massachusetts Council of Churches would speak out against them and raise concerns on behalf of the poor and effect on community and family life. Now the expansion of gambling via four casinos in our state is in the hands of voters, probably one last time in November.

The Church remains largely silent on this issue. Our denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, does not have a social statement or message on this issue, but Vicar Eric and I found some excellent older statements and resources worth reading if you want to be more fully aware of Christian concerns about gambling. They are listed below in order of brevity.

"All things are lawful," was a slogan in very cosmopolitan Corinth notices by Saint Paul in his missionary ventures. He contrasts that with his statement "but not all things are beneficial," highlighting the principle of freedom and our responsibility for others, our neighbors. Casinos are not pure evil, but like a lot of bad things they are complicated. They offer a lot of illusions the biggest of which is that you can have something for almost nothing (like the Lottery). They promote poor stewardship of time, talent and treasure, and never deliver what they promise. Gambling always preys on the desperation of the poor and lower income.

According to a famous but untrue story about Calvin Coolidge, he had returned from church and Mrs. Coolidge asked him what the sermon had been about. "Sin", he said. "Well, what did the minister say about it?" she asked. Coolidge said: "He was against it." This weekly message is about casinos and I'd like to say that I'm against them.

1984 Churchwide Statement on Gambling from the American Lutheran Church

Toledo Blade article from September 7th, 2014 on failed casino promises in Ohio

1936 & 1956 Statements on Gambling from the United Lutheran Church in America

1998 ELCA study on gambling for Congregations

Faithfully yours, Ross

New Beginnings, Inspirational Leaders (Letters from Presidents)

September brings some new beginnings in the wider church that I wanted you hear about. These beginnings bring good news and hope to the church. Two institutions, for lack of a better word, that have been important to St. Paul over the years are Lutheran Social Services and the Lutheran Seminary at Philadelphia. LSS has been a partner for almost 12 years as we have worked together in resettling unaccompanied refugee minors. The Lutheran seminary in Philadelphia is one of three seminaries from which I graduated (I needed a lot of work) and from which over 30 of our interns have come over the years.

You may have heard that after some 142 years, Lutheran Social Services has a new name--Ascentria Care Alliance. I should say with some measure of pride, that as a board member I helped launch this new name. You can read many of the good reasons this action was taken in a letter from its amazing leader Angela Bovill here. Although the letter is written to the hundreds of folks who work for LSS and serve thousands of clients in New England it will tell you a lot about the exciting changes happening, especially a big shift from being focused on running government funded programs, like foster care and refugee resettlement to being much more client or person-centered. It's a new day with a new name and a wonderful visionary leader. If you combined all the LSSs in the nation, it becomes the largest faith-based social agency in the U.S., bigger than Catholic Charities, or the Salvation Army, serving 1 in 50 Americans. Our local chapter, if you will, is being seen as an innovator and leader.

Our seminary in Philadelphia has a new President, David Lose. He was a much admired preaching professor at Luther Seminary in Minneapolis and a highly sought after teacher and public speaker. The adult forum has read a couple of his books Making Sense of Scripture and Making Sense of the Cross.   Like much of the church in the United States, the seminaries have been failing to thrive, so I was truly heartened to see that one of the church's best and brightest accepted this position. You can read his wonderful letter about the first day of school here. He says that a seminary is "quite literally, a 'seed-bed' (seminarium) — a place where hopes and dreams about God’s ongoing activity to love, bless, and save the world are planted in the hearts of women and men called to lead God’s church." He goes on to announce a goal we all share which is to "to raise a generation of Christians for whom faith is both deeply personal and profoundly public. The emerging generation will not keep going to church just because their parents did. But they will come and give of their time, talent, and financial strength to congregations they see engaging in the world and that help them not just profess their faith on Sunday but live their faith every day of the week." That's a calling for all of us at any age.

Speaking of presidents, I might mention two more. My long time friend and local pastor Martin Copenhaver just got started at nearby Andover Newton Theological School, bringing new vision and great strength from almost 30 years as a local pastor. It's the oldest seminary in the country and you can read his word of welcome here.

Finally, on the matter of racial tensions in Ferguson, Missouri, our Bishop Jim Hazelwood made reference in a recent blog to a letter from Fuller Seminary President Mark Labberton that is a call to prayer and action that I found thoughtful and worth reading. Fuller is an Evangelical seminary based in California and you may read the letter here.

That’s surely more links than you want to click but I am always on the lookout for good news and signs of hope in the world and in the church. These links share news of new life in the wider church near and far. I hope and pray that all of us might gather for worship as we begin a new program year on Rally Sunday September 14.

Blessings,   Ross

Work

"Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands—O  prosper the work of our hands!" - Psalm 90:17

"Be not simply good; be good for something." -Henry David Thoreau

In college, some of my Christian classmates tried to teach me that God had a detailed blueprint for my life but the lesson never stuck. As a Lutheran, I doubted such a thing existed, but I believed God cared about my life choices and sought to offer guidance. That's as far as I got.

Once in seminary, I still wasn't sure where all my education was going until I put on a clergy shirt for a required church assignment and looked in the mirror. I looked all of 15 but began to see a pastor staring back and kind of liked it. More than that, I liked the work. I preached, taught, visited the sick, and went to meetings. A calling emerged and I began to sense a divine purpose.

Later I would learn from Luther that that sense of divine purpose went way beyond the lives of the ordained. Luther, the priest and monk, became convinced that no work was dearer to the heart of God than others. Indeed changing the diaper was just as dear to God as polishing the church candlesticks. So Luther left the monastery and proclaimed Saint Paul's teaching of the priesthood of all believers. Whatever our work might be, Luther said, our common vocation is to love God and neighbor.

I take Luther's teaching to heart when I think of you in the congregation and the ministries you do in daily life--from changing those diapers as a parent, to preparing a classroom as a teacher, to doing research for a new drug as a scientist, to sending a card to a friend as a friend. It's all work with a holy purpose, but I fear you might not often sense that. I wish we could find a way to hold up this wonderful sense of calling. It might change the way we do our work and transform our sense of who we are as the church.   Most of the good that the church does is not when a few of us meet in committees to do "church work," it is the work we do as the gifted people of God sent out to serve our neighbor in a million different ways.

Luther's teaching on vocation is great but the reality is more complicated.   It seems to me that so many people are missing a sense of purpose in their work. They might be too focused on money or recognition or power. Or the work could be deadly dull and the boss a jerk. There is much work that meets human need but whose purposes are too small for most human beings. I truly believe that most people really want to be good for something that is meaningful.   Sometimes the more purposeful stuff comes from some place other than our job, like the family or coaching a team or supporting a noble cause as a volunteer. Meaningful work is not always easy to come by, but it is an integral part of our spirituality and our common faith.

Last week I met for the first time the man in my town who writes parking tickets. I've noticed him over the years and even though he moves among the cars with a Zen-like bearing, I have avoided him as if he were the town ogre. He greeted me after I parked (legally) to chuckle at my license plate (LIC PLT). “How do you like your job?” I wondered. “It gets a little monotonous,” he said, “but I actually like it!” I could tell he does his work carefully, fairly, and with more of a cheerful attitude than I would think is possible. He been reading plates and writing tickets full time for eight years since graduating high school. He keeps parking order on the streets and makes the town a lot of money, which the town needs. “Do you take a lot of crap?” I asked him. “I sure do,” he said with another chuckle, “The sense of entitlement is off the charts, but I’ve gotten used to it and I’ve learned to stay very, very calm.” Now there is an invaluable life lesson. He told me he’s moving on to become a school janitor and was quite pleased with his “promotion.” I was inspired by his devotion, calm kindness, and his sense of purpose. Indeed no job is too small to play a part in the ongoing work of creation and maintaining the common good. Imagine the chaos that would ensue if no parking laws were enforced. Bonus: He got me thinking about my own sense of entitlement! He said a very few number of people thank him for their ticket, appreciating his role in the community and imagining how challenging his job must be at times.

This Labor Day weekend consider your callings and try to be fully present to all the holiness of the work you do, knowing that our great common calling is to love God and neighbor, and that every human interaction offers you the chance to make things better or worse.

Thank you, God, for work to do; for useful tasks that need study and strength; for the companionship of labor; and for exchanges of good humor and encouragement. Lord, hear our prayers, we ask, for those who don't have a job, who may have about given up hope. Sustain and uphold them and guide us in creating a society where everyone has a chance to contribute. Amen.

Jesus on the Border

"Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger, and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it we saw you sick or in prison and visited you…. "'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'" Matthew 25: 37-40

Indeed we need immigration reform and for congress to find a just and generous solution the current crisis at our southern border. Fifty thousand children this year is a humanitarian crisis and that many next year is unimaginable and impossible. But for now there are tens of thousands of children in great need and I have no doubt that we can apply Jesus' words from the end of Matthew to this situation.

A year ago six boys from Central America lived here in our church house. They had crossed the border, escaping desperate circumstances back home much like an increasing number of children are today. A 2008 law meant that these children could not be placed in detention with adults and that they would be entitled to a day in court to determine their legal status. And so the kind of group home we had here most recently was created. This law is part of what is under debate as congress seeks a solution to the border crisis. The house closed last October partly because the federal government sought to consolidate such group homes into larger facilities.  

For most of the last 13 years our church house has been a home for refugees, beginning in 2001 when 8 of some 40 "lost boys and girls" from Sudan were resettled there and the rest in foster homes nearby. Five families from St. Paul took some of them into our homes and welcomed them into our families. Those 40 were only a fraction of some 3500 that arrived almost all at once from a refugee camp in Kenya where they had languished for years during a longstanding civil war.

 I often look back on that chapter in our congregation's life with deep gratitude and tremendous pride. It was a time when we were at our best as a church, welcoming unusual strangers, caring for neighbors in need, sharing our abundance, receiving much more than we gave, gaining a deeper sense of our place in the world, setting an extraordinary example of hospitality for our children, celebrating their graduations from high schools and colleges, watching them become U.S. citizens, hearing news of weddings and good jobs, rejoicing now as two families return to St. Paul with their children.

The Goodman family was blessed to have four boys move in. Of course it was scary at first. Where would we all fit? How much would they eat? How would we get along? Did we really even know what we were doing? But we had Jeanne Woodward, a member of St. Paul and the director of the Unaccompanied Refugee Minor Program of Lutheran Social Services. We had supportive communities, personal resources, faith and prayers. It was one of the best (and hardest) experiences our family ever had mainly because we were all brought together under one roof. In many ways resettling refugees from Sudan was both highly unusual given their stories and background and full of promise. They spoke English, had education and were remarkably able to take advantage of almost everything available to them (not easy to do). No one knew at the time what a joy it would be to welcome them and witness their progress.

But that was then and this is now. And here is the really hard part. Compared to the refugees from Sudan, the current group of children from Central America present even greater challenges. There are a lot more of them. They are much younger. They've been traumatized in different ways. They don't speak English and are often not educated. Many seek to be reunited with family members who are not here legally. Foster home placements will be extremely challenging. Sending most of them back would probably make matters worse there and many would return upon risk of death. Meanwhile the longer term solution will require the slow work of vast improvements in those very poor and corrupt countries.

There is no question but that the enormous flow of unaccompanied children has to be greatly reduced as soon as possible. And in my mind we must deal compassionately with the children who are already here. Both sides of the border know that crossing that border makes a world of difference and is often the difference between life and death.

In many ways we are all in unknown territory. I am guided by the simple notion that Jesus himself has come over to our side and we should act accordingly.

Faithfully, Ross

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