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On the Sixth Anniversary of Sandy Hook: Seeking an Antidote to Violence

In a couple hours, I’m going to put on my Santa outfit and greet hundreds of kids at the community health center I work at. I’ve been Santa here for several years and it is one of the most important things I do.

One of my other responsibilities is to help with the radio show the health center produces, Conversations on Healthcare. A few weeks ago, our guest was Dr. Leana Wen, the new President of Planned Parenthood. During her interview, she spoke about her efforts as Baltimore’s Health Commissioner to address the epidemic of gun violence. Her words, “Violence is contagious” has stuck with me.

If violence is contagious, what is the antidote? How do we inoculate people against violence? Some of it comes from greeting people with a smile and telling them that they matter. That is what I do when I see children running up to Santa. I tell them I love them. I give them a hug. I don’t ask if they’ve been naughty or nice, that doesn’t seem to be helpful. Instead, I ask them what the nicest thing they’ve done for someone recently is. I keep it positive.

Today as I am greeting kids in Middletown, kids in Newtown are home from school. Some are sad. Some are anxious. On the sixth anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook, students have been sent home after a bomb threat forced the evacuation of the school. I wish I could hug each of those kids and tell them it will be okay.

I wish I could hug the kids who were killed six years ago. There is a special list for those beloved of Santa. It includes: Charlotte, Daniel Barden, Olivia, Josephine, Dylan, Madeleine, Catherine, Chase, Jesse, Ana, James, Grace, Emilie, Jack, Noah, Caroline, Jessica, Avielle, Benjamin, and Allison.

I can only do so much, so I’m asking your help. Please join me in being an antidote to violence. #LoveWins

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An Easy People's Liturgy

We sat around the table and drank a bottle of wine…

We were listening to “Easy People” by The Neilds, but we weren’t actually drinking a bottle of wine. We were playing YouTube Riff Off. My youngest daughter was home from college with a friend and we were playing songs off our cellphones, mostly from YouTube. A person would play a song, and then the next person would play some song that they associated with the previous song, riffing off the previous song.

Perhaps I’ve been too engrossed in my studies, but I looked at us around the table and thought about what I’m reading for Postmodern Christian Education in seminary. Juan M. C. Oliver in Worship-Shaped Life writes,

I cannot overemphasize how dangerous is the failure to incarnate our worship in the local time, place, and culture.

(Oliver, 13)

The YouTube Riff Off felt more incarnated in our local time, place, and culture than many church services I attend. I wondered, how do we make liturgy more like a YouTube Riff Off?

When ritual isn’t tied to local time, place, and culture, it can become highly problematic. Oliver talks about the relationship between ritual and colonialism. It became very easy for Anglicans in British colonies to confuse rituals of the Reign of God with rituals of the British Empire.

I love the rituals of liturgy, and yet Oliver’s warning rang true. How much do we love rituals because they are different, and take us out of our daily lives, and how much do we love rituals because they connect us with something greater? It seems like a good liturgy should do both. However, at times I’ve participated in liturgies that have done neither.

Put another way, liturgy should be about meaning-making, and “meaning-making takes community” (Oliver 19). There was a lot of meaning shared in the songs around the dinner table. Heartbreak, longing, hope.

Haven't I paid my dues by now, don't I get the right to choose?
And I choose you to take up all of my time
I choose you because you're funny and kind
I want easy people from now on

As we played our music, I thought back to times when I had first heard the songs; times with friends in college, times with my children when they were little. There is something very liturgical there. Some of the church services that I find most moving are those that connect me to saints throughout the ages. Oliver talks about the importance of things “older and greater than us, and outlasting us.” (Oliver 11) Thursday was All Saints day, so I feel particularly focused on the great cloud of witnesses of the Christian faith over the centuries right now. I think about this during various church services. Am I getting a sense of a timeless tradition being incarnate in my local time, space, and culture? I love it when I do get that sense, praying in an old monastery with walls soaked in prayers of generations of monks, praying in a church using language, images, sounds, and smells that have accompanied the saints for ages.

So now, as Oliver suggests, I am reflecting on last night’s secular ritual of YouTube Riff Off as I prepare for todays ritual of Eucharist. (Oliver, 20). May the timeless be as locally and culturally incarnate in todays worship as it was in last night’s gathering.

Faith Formation Networks

One of the most exciting ideas I’ve come across so far in my studies at Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP) is the Faith Formation Network. John Roberto, in chapter 3 of his book, Reimagining Faith Formation for the 21st Century presents this idea of Christian education in the context of digital media, connected learning, and personal learning networks. This is an idea I’ve had that I’ve been trying to find words for and an example of for a long time.

For me, this is something very different from parishes using social media to market their churches or even organizations using digital media to create and curate content. These are both components of a faith formation network, but merely components. The Faith Formation Learning Exchange gets us much close to finding faith formation networks, but if a faith formation network is based on a personal learning network, then it must be something individuals create for themselves.

There are various starting points for a faith formation network, and it seems as if many of the starting points right now seem to be focused on extending existing resources, like a church or seminary webpage or social media presence. It seems like we need some other starting points.

To illustrate this, let me relate an old marketing adage. People don’t by shovels, they buy holes. People buy things because they want or need it. They don’t need a shovel. They need to get a hole dug. The shovel that will be most helpful getting that hole dug is the one they will buy. We need to be thinking about experiences of the divine the same sort of way. People want to experience God. They want to experience forgiveness, acceptance, love, community, and many other things that we associate with God. For many people I know, church is probably the last place they would look for these sorts of things, with seminary coming in a close second.

Those of us who are drawn to God who wish to draw others to God need to think carefully about how people are invited into their faith formation network. To illustrate this, let me explore a little bit of my faith formation network.

I will start with one of the churches I currently attend, Grace and St. Peters in Hamden, CT. While not everyone will start there, and where you start probably doesn’t especially matter, especially if you are thinking of a faith formation network in the context of Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome, it is where many people start. There are a few important things to point out about the church I attend on most Sunday mornings. We started attending that church because my wife was friends with someone from that church in an online community and that friend invited us to church. It was an example of someone from one online network inviting another person to another network, which in this case was not online.

Another thing to notice is that I mention Grace and St Peters as one of the churches I currently attend. On Thursdays at lunch time, I attend a Eucharist service at The Church of the Holy Trinity in Middletown, CT. On Saturday evenings, I attend vespers at Three Saints Orthodox Church in Ansonia, CT. I also attend a dinner bible study and worship on Thursday evenings with people from Andover Newton seminary at Yale Divinity School and participate in their closed Facebook group. In a faith formation network, people find many similar and competing resources across the religious spectrum.

As part of being a member of the CDSP community I help maintain and participate in the CDSP Virtual Daily Office. This is a digital resource which ties back to digital communities. I’m in a small closed Facebook group with a cohort of students who first arrived on campus in the summer of 2018. We talk about the daily office there and the cycle of prayers that is currently being used in the daily office comes from that group.

I am also part of a small group that I started on Facebook for people seeking discernment. Given the difficulties of my own journey, I started the group and it has grown. One person from that group has started studies at CDSP. All of this illustrates the interconnectedness of groups and resources in a personal learning network.

There are numerous other resources that are part of my faith formation network. A high school classmate whose blog I subscribe to. A friend from my young adult days in New York City has a blog, Water Daily that I subscribe to. I subscribe to some of the better known resources online, like Brother, Give Us A Word from the Society of Saint John the Evangelist and Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditations. There are a lot of resources like this that I subscribe to and I should probably find time to curate this list and make it more available.

There are also the various live streams on Facebook that are part of my faith formation network. Right now, one that I especially appreciate is Pop-up Prayer with Canon Katie. She identifies herself as ‘your Facebook priest’ and ends each pop-up prayer reminding people that they are “so loved by God”. It is a wonderful ministry and exemplifies much of what it means to be a node in a faith formation network. Another group of Facebook resources that I subscribe to is live church streams, perhaps best exemplified for me right now with Dallas West Church of Christ. This is the church where Botham Shem Jean attended and I started watching their streams as they remembered Botham’s life and called all of us to action.

Dallas West Church of Christ illustrates my point about shovels. I started watching their stream, not because I was looking for a church. I started watching their stream because I was praying for justice and their prayers and my prayers came together.

Next week, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry will be preaching at Western Mass Revival. I have been talking with the organizers about what happens after the revival. I’m particularly interested in this in terms of faith formation networks. We’ve set up a Facebook page for people who will be attending the revival, either in person, or watching the live stream. If you are attending the revival and want to join with us in a faith formation network, check out WMA Way of Love.

I hope to build upon some of this for a project for Postmodern Christianity and learn more about the role faith formation networks will play in my journey and the journey of those around me.

Home Cooking and Theological Questions

This fall I am taking Theology 1 in seminary and struggling greatly with it. Some of this is because I do not yet have a sufficient theological language to respond to the questions being asked. Because of this I can only respond with statements of belief and analogies to try and help explain my beliefs. Another part is because it feels like many of the underlying theological questions are superfluous.

We are asked to say why we think theological questions are important and what is at stake with them. To me, mostly they seem fairly unimportant with little if anything at stake. It seems like the response acceptable in class is, because God is this or did that, then we should do something in particular. Because God created the world ex nihilo or out of chaos we should care for creation. Because we hold a social trinitarian view of God when should love our neighbor.

These responses seem to me to be at best superfluous. I care for creation and love my neighbor because of my loving experience of God.

As an illustration, I will turn to my mother’s home cooking. We are approaching the sixth anniversary of the death of my mother and I will say something it may seem incredible for a loving son to say, but my mother really wasn’t a great cook. There was often not enough food. Spices were a luxury rarely used. The meals were often utilitarian and boiled to blandness.

Yet it was also, other than my wife’s cooking, the best food I ever ate. The spices or lack thereof did not really matter. What mattered was that the food was prepared and served with love, with a deeper love than I could fully comprehend. My mother wasn’t looking for praise for her cooking. While she might have gotten some pleasure if I said I really appreciated the way the flavors complimented one another, what she was more concerned about was that we were nourished. If anything, the response that meant the most was, “Thank you, mommy. I love you.”

The Psalm 51 says

Open my lips, Lord,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise.

For me, the key theological question is, “how do I praise God from my place of brokenness”? Starting anywhere other than “Thank you God, I love you” seems superfluous.

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