The bridge at Hidden Pond Nature Center, on the day after Thanksgiving. Known in some places as Black Friday… but not here.
Already I’ve rankled people who bristle at Christianity being a “brand” at all. Get over it. Jesus commanded us to go into the world, to preach, teach and baptize, which makes our faith a matter of public concern. And the Christian brand is continually being damaged, perhaps irreparably.
Consider the Public Religion Research Institute’s study of millenials’ views of Christianity. Three of the top perceptions were anti-gay (64%), judgmental (62%) and hypocritical (58%).
From church trials over the rights of pastors to perform same-sex weddings, to a pastor who wants to burn the Quran—again—to the bizarre rantings about women and girly-men by wildly popular pastor Mark Driscoll, there’s plenty of anecdata to support those statistics.
Then we have the Stingy Tipper Brigade. There’s been a rash of stories about Christians apparently putting their faith into action… by shafting their waitstaff. First there was the pastor who refused to give 18% because after all, she only gives God 10%. Then a photo started making the rounds of a fake 10-dollar bill tucked into a check holder with the message that “SOME THINGS ARE BETTER THAN MONEY, like your eternal salvation, that was brought and paid for by Jesus going to the cross.”
Finally, consider Pope Francis. Wait, what? Francis is awesome! Yes, he is. Look, I’m just as gaga as anyone when Pope Francis lets a child sit in his special chair, or embraces a man with boils, or refuses to hate on gays or atheists. He is receiving almost universal adulation at the moment, and rightly so. But here’s the thing: those are supposed to be basic Christian behaviors. Jesus said, “Let the children come to me.” He touched and associated with the sick and outcast. And his message was one of love, not judgment. So it’s a sad comment when the pope gets plaudits for simply doing what Jesus asked us to do… and it’s a sure sign that the public’s perception Christianity is on the ropes.
So why is this happening?
I see two things coming into play.
First is the role of the Internet and social media for propagating outrageous stories. Are people jerkier for Jesus than they used to be? Who knows, but I doubt it. The jerks, like the poor, will always be with us. (The Crusades, anyone?) It’s just that now we’re privy to every cringe-worthy encounter involving a Christian.
To paraphrase the old adage, the outrageous story travels around the world before the positive story puts on its shoes. Except that in the digital age, the outrageous story also gets liked, retweeted and shared multiple times over, which makes it hard to get a true picture of what’s going on. Is there really an epidemic of bad tipping, or are the same stories being circulated repeatedly? (On the other hand, the story of the waitperson who got stiffed because she was gay? I actually had trouble googling it at first, because there were several.)
Second: Christians whose lives proclaim a different set of values than the boorish headline-grabbers—values of mercy, humility and service—are people who intentionally do not wear their faith on their sleeves. We’ve got an initiative going at the church this month in which we’re encouraging random acts of kindness. This past Sunday we shared a few of those stories. The purpose is to make connections between what we proclaim on Sunday morning and the “sacred ordinary” of our lives.
The reaction has been interesting and telling. Some are wondering why we’re having a kindness initiative at all—shouldn’t we go out of our way to be kind every day? Yes… but some of us need reminders to look beyond the blinders of our own schedules and responsibilities. (People like me, by the way.)
But the other realization in hearing people’s kindness stories is how ordinary they are. They will not get tweeted or YouTubed. And although these folks are motivated by their faith, in no case did they punctuate their actions with, “And by the way, I’m a Christian.”
Let’s see… a disgraceful, homophobic response on the part of a Christian restaurant patron, versus the hour my parishioner spent helping a stranger fix the wheelchair lift on her husband’s van.
In the marketplace of ideas—in the media landscape we currently inhabit—Christianity doesn’t stand a chance.
I see two alternatives: either some of us need to get a lot louder—something I don’t see happening, personally; it’s not in our nature, and it’s likely to backfire anyway—or we need a different term for ourselves. Has anyone found one they like?
I find the whole thing sad. The haters are just SO loud right now. And they are doubly amplified: by people like me who shake their heads at the mean petty behavior in the name of Jesus, and the atheists and the non-religious who say “See?!? I TOLD you the whole thing’s bogus!”
A pastor friend posted one of these stories on FB last week and lamented, “It’s enough to make me give up and play for the other team.” I hear you, bro. But I can’t. I just can’t. This relentlessly persistent and gracious Palestinian Jew won’t let me.
And it’s getting pretty annoying.
UPDATE: A previous version of this blog included a paragraph about a woman who got stiffed on a $93 bill because the patrons didn’t approve of her lesbian “lifestyle.” That story is now in serious doubt, so it has been removed.
Do college students still mess with the margins in order to make their papers appear longer? Or has that practice fallen away in the age of email and word counts?
(And how dumb did we think our profs were to fall for that?)
My family’s yearning for Sabbath began several years ago when we realized that our lives hummed along perfectly well, so long as nothing went wrong. We jam-packed our days and worked to exhaustion, which was fine so long as nobody got sick or the basement never flooded. Regular periods of rest gave us some emotional decompression time and also helped us think about the rest of our week differently.
What we were doing was minding our margins. I prefer “margins” to boundaries, which feels too unyielding to be helpful amid the complexity of life. But even with the looser language, margins are hard for me.
After James was born, I went to a half-time schedule and became very good at efficient scheduling. I suspect it was hard on some of the folks I worked with, whose model for ministry was more “be open to what comes and savor the interruptions.” Yes, ministry is about relationships. And interruptions are a part of the package. But as an associate pastor in a programmatic position with 20-25 hours on the clock each week, there were certain things that needed to get done each day.
I still like back to back meetings—random 25 minute blocks of time between appointments make me a little batty. Like many of you, a lot of my work involves thinking and writing, and I can barely get my metaphorical pencils sharpened in 25 minutes.
That said, it’s important to build adequate margin between appointments, especially if those meetings have a heavy emotional undercurrent to them—or you think they might.
Plus, you know… traffic.
The goal for me, as always, is flow: an effortlessness and mindfulness to what I’m doing. In those moments I am neither rushed nor languishing. I am just… in time.
Yesterday was a tight-margin day in which I moved in and out of flow, and even had to cancel something because I’d packed things in too tightly. First up was a coffee appointment with someone to plan an event I’m doing in January. We met at the Starbucks, because right after that a church member and I were doing some de-cluttering, to get ready for some high school band students whom we’d hired to do some schlepping to the dumpster. That took longer than I’d expected, which led to the cancellation. After lunch and some emails and phone calls, I had a quick run, which had to be cut short (another too-tight margin). Then it was a hospital visit and home with the kids.
As I type it, it seems frenetic, like a lot of chopped up experiences and harried distraction. And given the need to cancel stuff, clearly I’d planned too much. But I didn’t feel harried at all. The Starbucks conversation meandered and flowed and ended when it needed to. I was not checking my watch at the hospital; there was sufficient time, and I had prearranged with my neighbor to get the kids at the bus stop so I could take my time.
So yesterday was good, on the whole. But there are just as many jam-packed days in which I feel like I’m all elbows and stubbed toes. I’m hard-pressed to figure out what makes the difference. In the meantime, I’ll chalk it up to the work of that mysterious Holy Spirit.
It’s November, the month of Thanksgiving, which means that folks on Facebook are celebrating the 30 Days of Thankfulness. Last week a friend me asked if I knew the origins of this practice. I don’t know where it started, but I’m touched that she would associate it with me. The 30 days is a burst of positive energy in an often snarky and cranky social media universe…
My friend Marci has decided not to participate because of the potential for bragbooking. I’m sympathetic to her concerns. My next book looks at technology and digital culture from a spiritual perspective. As I research, I’m finding various studies suggesting that Facebook has the potential to decrease people’s happiness. One person’s gratitude is another person’s braggadocio. We end up comparing other people’s outsides to our insides, or as I saw it expressed somewhere, everyone else’s sizzle reel to our blooper reel.
But I’m not sure the answer, for me, anyway, is to sit out the practice altogether. After all—and Marci points this out herself—gratitude is a spiritual practice.
Where’s the challenge in being thankful when you’re on top of the world? It’s considerably harder to see gratitude in ordinary life as it chugs along. And when things are downright crappy, gratitude can be transforming, the tiny candle you wrap your fingers around to keep the darkness at bay.
Social media is here to stay. People are welcome to dip in and out of it, or take long breaks, or hide the gratitude posts that make them crazy, or whatever they need to do for their own mental and spiritual health. As someone who takes tech sabbaths every week, I believe you’re under no obligation to consume social media the way other people do. But it is a part of our lives. So it seems worthwhile to practice engaging with it in ways that are hospitable to others and gracious to yourself.
So here’s how the 30-day gratitude challenge can be helpful and not an exercise in bragbooking. I offer these as someone who studies social media and digital culture, and as a pastor who has taught and practiced the Ignatian examen (a practice of gratitude and discernment) for many years.
1. Go beyond the obvious. At the women’s retreat I led this weekend, I gave them an icebreaker question to answer in small groups: “It’s just not Thanksgiving without…” But I specifically told them, “You can’t say ‘family’ or ‘my grandkids.’” I hope this caveat invited them to share something more specific and personal.
My friend Kristen posted a great moment of thankfulness this weekend: “Hair – as a fresh ‘do can literally change you. [My hairdresser] has been a steady presence in my life since 2004 when I wandered into the salon where she worked. 9 years, 2 salons, 4 jobs (me), 5 kids (hers plus mine) and countless haircuts, highlights and hairstyles later – I’m proud to call her friend and stylist extraordinaire.”
No bragbooking there. Just a touching tribute by a fabulous, sassy gal. Kristen’s update invites me into gratitude for the folks who provide services for me and the friendships that can develop.
It also makes me consider getting highlights. Again.
2. Think small. The examen is meant to be a daily practice. And often our most grateful moment is not the biggest headline of the day, but the moment that took our breath away. Maybe you got a huge raise at work (I know, in this economy? hey, it could happen), but the breathtaking moment was the act of kindness you saw in the line at Starbucks. Gratitude can be a trickster.
3. Be specific. “I’m thankful for my health” may be true. And for someone who’s battled cancer, or recovered from an injury, that’s huge. But consider how your update sounds to a friend whose health is a source of stress, or who’s in a chronic struggle with an illness. Instead, how about a specific thing your health allowed you to enjoy today? I’m thankful that I could pick up my big kindergartner today without my back going out.
4. Violate the Zaxxon rule. At the end of every Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, the host and guests share “what’s making us happy this week.” The idea is to recommend interesting movies, TV or books to the audience. During an early episode Stephen Thompson gushed about the Zaxxon video game he’d recently purchased. Later the group realized that it wasn’t the best “what’s making me happy,” since it’s not like everyone can go out and buy a Zaxxon machine. They instituted the Zaxxon rule to keep them accountable to share stuff that other people could reasonably partake of.
When it comes to gratitude, we should violate, rather than follow, the Zaxxon rule. That cuts down on comparisons. I am grateful for the flame of color from the Japanese maple in my front yard. That’s very particular to my situation. You don’t feel bad for not having a Japanese maple in your yard, do you?
5. Confront the bragbooker. Do it publicly only if you can do it lightheartedly, otherwise in private. Is it crazy to think we could do this, in the spirit of authenticity and friendship? Maybe. I realize this is hard. But if my posts are providing a stumbling block to someone, I want to know it. We’re all works in progress, folks. We can help one another along.
Are you participating in the 30 days of gratefulness? Why or why not?
A few weeks ago I heard an NPR story about reSTART, an inpatient treatment program for people who are addicted to the Internet. It was eye-opening. Most of the program’s clients are young men addicted to video games, in some cases playing for 12 hours a day for weeks and months on end.
I grew up around the language of addiction. My father was a recovering alcoholic from the time I was three years old. My dad got sober not through an in-patient program but through Alcoholics Anonymous. From an early age I understood that, whether because of genetics or because of the complexities of our family system, I should be vigilant about alcohol’s effects on me.
Today I am a social drinker who can’t stand the feeling of being drunk. But I do think a lot about my Internet use, especially social media programs like Twitter and Facebook. It doesn’t impact my parenting or my job like the reSTART clients. I take a tech sabbath every weekend and am pretty good about sticking to it.
But it’s harder to immerse myself in a long book than it was even six or seven years ago. Granted, I recently finished Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder and could not put it down! But books that make me work hard often have me reaching for the smartphone every chapter or so. It’s the oft-lamented death of the attention span.
As a writer, I crave long uninterrupted time with my thoughts—tough to come by with part-time ministry, three kids and a spouse. But when I am able to set a day aside for writing, it’s hard to quiet the twitchy mind that wants to reach for the gadget and check Pinterest… again. (Hey, someone may have posted more pumpkin recipes! Or Nutella! In a slow-cooker!)
There is something chemical going on.
Around the time I might have curtailed or even quit Facebook and Twitter, two things happened. One: I got a call as a solo pastor, which means I don’t have staff colleagues to hang with around the water cooler. Social media helps fill that need to be, well, social.
And two: I started gearing up to publish (and promote) Sabbath in the Suburbs. I treasure the opportunity to connect with readers, and social media makes that a convenient (and yes, meaningful) activity. But there is also a cost to being so connected.
The NPR story was helpful because it allowed me to give myself a break. The poor folks who enter reSTART have flunked out of school and gotten fired. That’s a far cry from worrying about the ability to read a challenging novel without interruption.
The downside of such news stories is that they can let us off the hook. I expect there’s a good number of us who worry that we’re in a troubling place between social drinkers and problem drinkers. It doesn’t serve us well to say, “Well I’m not as bad as those people so I’m fine.”
What do you think? reSTART has an Internet Addiction survey if you’re interested in considering your own use and habits.