244: Here’s a pastoral vision of Facebook as a spiritual community

hile I was in Washington D.C. last week, I dropped by Foundry United Methodist Church for Sunday services. I will admit that partly I wanted to show my family the brass plaque on the pew where Bill and Hillary Clinton used to sit during services. As we approached the soaring stone facade and entered the front doors, the place looked just a little different than I recalled. Among other things, the Secret Service protection is gone.
    Foundry remains an exciting hub of innovative programs and ideas. A church member greeted us cheerfully at the front door. Another greeted us near our pew. (Visit Foundry’s Web site to learn more.)
    But, that visit produced something I did not anticipate — a real treat for you today: an inspiring slice of Foundry insights for you, courtesy of the Rev. Dee Lowman. (That’s her, at left, during the ribbon-cutting for a new front-door ramp at Foundry.)
    Imagine my surprise that morning: I was preparing the articles that you’ve been reading over the past week about spiritual connections in various forms, working with Christine Gloss and Dr. Wayne Baker (take a look at how they’re carrying the conversation forward over at OurValues this week). Then, during this visit to Foundry with my family that I thought of more as “spiritual sight seeing” during this Washington trip — Dee got up in the pulpit and began talking about the spiritual community that can form via Facebook.
    It was a real convergence of ideas and reflections. Everywhere I look and listen, these days, I am finding these fresh words of wisdom about the importance of social networking in building strong communities. And, even more than that, I’m hearing that strong and healthy social networks are, indeed — sacred.
    In short, that’s what Dee preached. With her permission, we’re sharing her sermon with you, today. I have adapted Dee’s sermon in a couple of small ways. One is that I’ve shortened it a little so you can enjoy it during your busy day, today.
    As you read her message here, think carefully about how she discusses these issues. Here, Dee is building a bridge (the same idea Dr. David Myers was talking about yesterday) between people already in online social networks — and those just glimpsing this new phenomenon on the horizon.
    Here, then, is Dee’s message, which she calls:

“Downloading Spirituality”

    In an attempt to become more hip and cool in anticipation of impending parenthood, I have joined Facebook.
    Facebook is a social networking site on the Web that allows members to share information, pictures, celebrations and anything else they want others to see. You begin by joining and setting up your own Facebook site. Then you invite friends to view your site, or others ask you to invite them to view your site.
    My set of friends is growing all the time. After connecting with my first friend, as of today I have 42 friends, and I receive requests from at least two or three new friends each day.
    I was recently invited to be friends with Anne, someone I haven’t seen since graduation from high school in 1982. Although we were only acquaintances before –- we were in band together — now we are learning more about each other and about what’s happened in our lives since high school. She and I are truly are becoming friends.
    When I first heard about social networking sites online, I was concerned about security. Still cautious, I don’t put home or really personal information on the site; but I am getting more confident in sharing some of who I am and what I do. My friends who have children and youth on Facebook educate their kids on safe use of this kind of connecting and networking. With appropriate restraint, it is pretty cool to reconnect with people whom I’ve moved away from or who have moved away from me or from us here at Foundry.
    One feature of Facebook is a section asking: “What are you doing right now?” It’s a chance to fill in people — moment by moment — on what you might be up to.
    I see all kinds of things that people are doing. I saw a posting yesterday that said, “Matthew is trying to get his daughter to take a nap.” Another said, “Bill is eating M&Ms.” Although these may seem inconsequential and maybe even a waste of time, I felt a really human connection to a guy “cleaning the kitchen” and the woman who is “tired of family drama.” Through these pages and across the Web, people are sharing their daily lives with me.
    For me, this is a new way of being connected to people. I have been a face-to-face kind of person, one who likes to see the look on someone’s face when I tell the person something that is going on in my life — good or not so good. I’m trying, however, to make use of the amazing new kinds of technology by retraining myself so that cell phones, text messaging, and, yes, Facebook help me be connected to people whom I care about.

    Throughout this coming year I am using all this techno-stuff in taking a class with four other folks. Although we meet in person only two times during the year, we have “meetings” on the phone and online each month. These times online, in fact, are becoming very important to me. They are sacred.
    The word sacred comes from the Latin word sacer, meaning “untouchable.” A book called “MySpace to Sacred Space: God for a New Generation,” by Christian and Amy Piatt, talks about a new understanding of this word. The authors say that sacred “suggests connections to God, community and intentionally recognized time and space.” In the past, sacred represented a kind of other-worldliness and set-apartness. Now, “the sacred is still embraced as significant and holy, but without necessarily being identified as part of a church.”
    I am fascinated by people who are incredibly mobile. Younger folks come and go here at Foundry, moving across the country or even across an ocean without a great deal of apparent loss. When jobs and assignments come up, these young people leave without qualms. I realize now that they maintain without break a strong connection to their friends here and to Foundry because they are online throughout the move, the day after they land, or at least as soon as they are settled in their new place. They are connected, beyond space and time and location.
    The use of technology in sacred worship is not new. Many churches have used computer technology to present and enhance worship through images, words and music. But I am fascinated by the possibilities of moving beyond multi-media to technologies that help us discover the importance of worship, prayer and connection in the life of the church to ensure the future of the church and the story of Jesus and his love.

    Not all technology, of course, contributes to the sacred and to connections among individuals.
    But, while some people use technology to strive for status and perceived importance through technology, others are establishing ways of “being with” one another. For example, one youth group prays together on Facebook at the same time every week. Other people find additional technology-based ways to support one another in their common lives of faith.
    The Piatts write: “In a world of every-increasing abstraction, mired in a flood of data irrespective of the quality of content, the church must be the catalyst that allows for sacred space wherever and whenever two or more gather to seek it.”
    We all know that there is a lot of unreliable data online and, as a church, we care about quality of content In this new era, the church can serve as a source of relevant, helpful, and high-quality information about God, the world, one another, and the life of faith.

    When I talked about my sermon at our staff meeting this week, Theresa, our Minister of Church and Families, said that she downloads spirituality every week. She is seldom in Sunday worship, because she is with our children, supporting their learning in Sunday School. So Theresa downloads sermons to her IPod and listens to them during the week. Because it is important to her to hear God’s word, she is intentional about making time for listening to sermons during the week.
    The apostle Paul could not possibly have imagined the kind of world we live in at the beginning of the 21st century when he warned against being conformed to this world. Paul wanted people to retain a connection to what was real, what was true, what was important for a life with God in Christ. Paul wanted to warn people against the seductive nature of the world; he knew that the life of a Christ-follower would never be easy. This is still a good warning for us. We need to guard ourselves against being seduced by the things of this world that take away from our relationship with God. But we also need to embrace what the world has produced that can help us share our story and the story of Jesus in ways that help us stay connected with God. 
    Computer technology, in fact, can help us ponder the Divine-Human connection.

    When I was reflecting on Paul’s words (in Romans 12:1-8) and a possible sermon topic, I first thought about our relationship with God as a download: We connect with God and download what we need from God. But as I thought further, I realized that my relationship with God is more like the interactive Facebook than a one-way download.
    On Facebook, friends check in with one another at a second’s notice, post links to topics on their minds, and send greetings and pictures to one another. I don’t want the kind of relationship with God in which I download something religious just to demonstrate to others that I am pious.
    The nature of God invites us to look through a window to the Divine –- a sacred, untouchable space that reveals to us all we ever really need to know about ourselves and about God and about others: our gifts, our truths, our place among other people in the world -– the “layout,” if you will, of our homepage.
    We are part of God’s inspired creation. We are invited to the sacred places where God meets us and invites us to be a friend. As part of Christ’s body, it is up to us as the church to ensure that all generations who seek God can find God in us, in our places of worship, and even online at our websites and social networking sites.
    Paul writes: “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.” Let us not be so cautious of the world, including its new technologies, that we miss the opportunity to use those technologies to share God and to be the presence of Christ in the world.

    We thank the Rev. Dee Lowman for sharing as our Guest Writer this week! Come back tomorrow for our weekly Reader Roundup. We’ve already heard lots of fascinating things from readers this week — and we’ll share the best of it with you tomorrow. But, there’s still time to share another thought, idea or anecdote with us.
    Click on the “Comment” link below — or you always can Email ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm directly.

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