Archive - 2017

September 20th

Ember Letter - September 2017

To those who prayer for me and those who offer me guidance and encouragement during this current phase of my journey, peace and love in our Lord Jesus Christ.

It is a tradition in parts of the Christian church for those seeking new ministries to write quarterly letters to those offering support and guidance, sometimes in formalized Ember Letters. It is within a broad interpretation of this tradition that I write this.

I will start with a comment from my previous letter, where I mentioned a friend who works for a local divinity school telling me that she did not believe I would be happy until I started seminary. I reached out to find a school that would fit my particular needs, especially around being able to work full-time and support my family while at the same time attending classes.

Church Divinity School of the Pacific accepted me into their online Certificate of Theological Studies program. The certificate requires eight elective courses and is, in a sense, a seminary postulancy. I am taking these courses as I seek a clearer sense of what God is calling me to, and whether I will continue on to an M.Div, and MTS, and MAR, or some other degree.

One of the things that I am excited about is CDSP’s participation in the Graduate Theological Union and the ability to take courses at various seminaries in the Bay area. One of the courses that caught my attention was News and Religion, offered by the Religious Freedom Center which is part of the Newseum in Washington, DC. I have applied and been accepted into their program as well.

So, this fall, I am taking News and Religion and Introduction to the Old Testament. I feel greatly blessed to have these opportunities and am enjoying myself greatly as I struggle to balance work, life, studies, church activities, and civic responsibilities.

During a recent mid-day Eucharist service, our discussion veered into what I was reading for seminary. One of the books on my list which is having a big impact on my thinking is “Radical Welcome” by the Rev. Stephanie Spellers. How do we radically welcome people into the Jesus Movement including at the diocesan level as well as the parish level? How do we radically welcome those called to various ministries?

I continue to work with the region leadership team in the South Central Region and spend a lot of time thinking about how we welcome people to activities of the region. As part of this, we are recognizing that not everyone has a specific parish that they associate with. I feel strong ties to a couple parishes. Others feel ties to no particular parish. What language do we use to welcome people with varying relationships to different churches? Does it welcome all people? At our next gathering, and we have been using the word gathering instead of convocation, since gathering feels more welcoming, will include an “unconference” which is another way to welcome everyone so that all may be heard.

As I discussed the ideas from Radical Welcome during mid-day Eucharist, a friend made a comment that my seminary reading list was not for me, but it was for all of us. It was a very powerful comment that I have been thinking a lot about. It seems as if we spend too much time thinking about where a process might be leading. We spend too much time preparing people for what they might be doing in three or five years, and not enough time on what they are doing right now.

Seminary is a wonderful experience for me and hopefully will shape who I am becoming, but it needs to be a wonderful experience through me to those around me right now as well.

This relates back to the underlying themes I’ve written about in the past. I continue to seek, using the language from a college experience, to live each moment more fully and more lovingly than the previous. I continue to seek, using the language of Brother Lawrence, to do all things for the love of God as I practice the presence of God. I continue to ask of God, in the language of St. Teresa of Avila, “God, What do you want of me?”

I continue to be reassured by the words of St. Teresa of Avila, “God alone is enough” and the words of St. Julian of Norwich, “All will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing shall be well.”

Over the past few months, I have continued to lead a service at a local nursing home and talk with some of the folks there. I continue to work with the dinner ministry, and I continue to talk with my friends on the street.

In addition, during the time of transition at Grace and St. Peter’s, I have had a few opportunities to preach, both on Sunday mornings as well as the opportunity to deliver a homily at the memorial service for the daughter of a friend. I have also been assisting with selecting hymns for Sunday services and helping with services in any other ways that I can. These experiences, too, have been a blessing to me, and hopefully to those around me.

I thank each of you for your ongoing prayers and your words of guidance and encouragement. I continue to pray for each of you as well.

All glory to God,
Aldon

September 18th

Does Freedom of Religion and Freedom of the Press Still Matter?

This was written originally for the News and Religion course I am talking at The Religious Freedom Center

A question we are exploring in the News and Religion class I am taking right now is, “Can you have religious freedom without freedom of speech and press? Why or why not?”  On the simplest level, the answer would seem pretty obvious: religious freedom requires freedom of speech since part of many religious practices include speaking.  To the extent that one’s religion calls one to speak out against injustice and work for reconciliation, a free press may also be required, or at least a free religious press.

On another level, the answer might simply be, does anyone really care? The latest research by the Public Religion Research Institute finds a continuing decrease in the number of people identifying as members of organized religion.   Discussions about religious freedom end up being about whether a business owner can discriminate against a group of people whose actions he doesn’t approve of or whether religious freedom laws can be used to fight laws that limit the freedom of women.

When we look to the news media, we see similar concerns: the consolidation of major news outlets, the focus on profits instead of seeking truth, and how all of this contributes to the rise of ‘fake’ news.  How relevant is religion or the press today?  What is the role of the news media covering religion in our secular multicultural digital age?

We must recognize that our religious identity as a nation has shifted over the years.  We have never fully lived up to the image of “A City Upon a Hill”, and that image itself, when examined carefully, has its share of negative aspects.  Likewise, the fourth estate has not always guided us towards the truth or our better selves.

The book, Readings on Religion as News, edited by Judith M. Buddenbaum and Debra L. Mason, is

“an anthology of news stories that illustrates both the role of religion in shaping public opinion and the role of media in spreading religious beliefs and opinions through society and in shaping people’s opinions about religion”.

The editors found themselves “inundated with examples of times when religion made a difference … [and] many interesting examples of news coverage that helped shape public opinion”.

It may feel that there is a paucity of such examples today as Americans drift away from religious organizations and the news media because more driven by profit motives.  Yet as is noted in chapter 10 of The Oxford Handbook of Religion and the American News Media edited by Diane Winston, blogging and online religious news coverage has the potential to fill an important role as “a venue for religious news and discourse in the public sphere”.

This leads us back to our starting question about freedom of religion and freedom of the press.  While we must keep in mind our individual freedoms, we must also keep in mind the constant reshaping of our cultural history and identity.  Religion and the press have worked together to constantly draw us back to public discourse, actions, and relationship with the divine for the welfare of our nation.  The freedoms of both are deeply interconnected.

September 16th

Digital Competency

Recently, I’ve been getting into various discussions about the article, Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? by Jean M Twenge. Below is an email that I wrote to some of my coworkers about this subject.

As some of you may know, I’ve been published in the Journal of Group Analytics, and spoken at the American Group Psychotherapy Association, the Association of Internet Researchers, and at NACHC conferences about social media. I also speak each year with the Psych Post Docs about social media.

I have a very different view of the effects of digital communications and find the Atlantic article highly flawed.

I would start off by referring people to the article Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants By Marc Prensky.

The article was written back in 2001 and has some significant flaws, particularly in too closely equating age with digital orientation, but it presents a key idea. We are at a unique time in human history where many of us, particularly older folks, have been brought up in a pre-digital or analog world. Many of us have learned to get by in a digital world, but we still keep many of our old analog ways. We are, in a sense digital immigrants. Others have been brought up in a digital world and are digital natives. Personally, I identify as a digital aborigine, but that’s a different topic.

It is worth noting this unique time is not without parallels. A good parallel was the years after the Guttenberg printing press. Back then, there was concern expressed about people who spent too much time reading. A famous novel from 1605 talks about a person who read too much, Don Quixote:

You must know, then, that the above-named gentleman whenever he was at leisure (which was mostly all the year round) gave himself up to reading books of chivalry with such ardour and avidity that he almost entirely neglected the pursuit of his field-sports, and even the management of his property; and to such a pitch did his eagerness and infatuation go that he sold many an acre of tillageland to buy books of chivalry to read, and brought home as many of them as he could get.

It was part of the writing of the era when people talked about those who spend too much time reading, much like how people talk about those who spend too much time online today.

In health care, we are called to be culturally competent. I would suggest that the Twenge article is an example of cultural incompetence by a digital immigrant talking negatively about a culture not her own and that her conclusions are based on her biases.

Is it a good thing, a bad thing, or a neutral thing that teens today tend to communicate more via computer mediated communications than face to face? Some of this may reflect our biases. Personally, for many reasons, I’m glad to see our culture become less of an automobile dominated culture and teens being less eager to learn to drive. I’m also not sure that delayed sexual activity is such a bad thing.

The concern about depression and loneliness is a much more important issue, but I would ask if the author is confusing causes and effects. Are the people that are online most often lonely because they are online, or are they online because they are lonely? If it is the later, then perhaps online interaction is actually beneficial. There is a lot of research on how online interaction can be a gateway to help isolated people become less isolated, to help people develop social skills online that they can then use in face to face interaction. As an aside, some of my favorite work on this has related to people on the autism spectrum manage their communications more effectively and as a result develop better face to face skills.

I do find it interesting to note that the previous article by Ms Twenge in Atlantic is
Young People Are Happier Than They Used to Be: But mature adults aren’t faring as well.
Perhaps Smartphones haven’t destroyed a generation, perhaps they are helping save it.

Perhaps related to this, recently, the New York Time re-ran an article from 2012 about loneliness:
Friends of a Certain Age: Why Is It Hard to Make Friends Over 30?

It seems as if there are some other more important issues to be addressed. Cyberbullying is an important issue that doesn’t really get proper consideration in the article. More importantly is the issue that teens today, as they are forming their identities, need to form identities in both the physical analog world and in the virtual digital world. It is much more difficult. At the same time, they do not have as many people to go to help them with their digital identities, because their elders are digital immigrants. We all need to become better at helping people whose lives are increasingly digital, without being judgmental about how much better things were when we were younger.

I hope you read the article in the Atlantic. I hope you read Prensky’s article, as well as the two articles about happiness and loneliness. Once you have read then, I hope you’ll go back and re-read Twenge’s article and ask yourself where the causes are, where the effects are, and how your biases about digital communications might be shaping you reactions.

I particularly encourage this for any behavioral health providers that are interested in what it might me to be digitally culturally competent.

September 10th

Religious News and the Decline of Christendom

This was the first week of the Religion and News Media course that I am taking at the Religious Freedom Center as part of my seminary education. We read from Readings on Religion as News, edited by Judith M. Buddenbaum and Debra L. Mason.

We started off reading a brief history of journalism in the United States and then read some of what was written in the press in the 1700s about the Small Pox vaccine from a religious perspective. I was interested to think about the discussions about vaccines back then and contrast it to discussions today about vaccines. I was disappointed to read about the opposition to the vaccine by Colonial Anglican clergy.

We also read two chapters from The Oxford Handbook of Religion and the American News Media edited by Diane Winston. Specifically, we read about the development of the religious news beat and organizations that supported it during the 1930s to 1960s. We also read about more recent religious bloggers and online coverage.

It has caused me to stop and look a little more closely at what is currently written about religion. The Public Religion Research Institute recently published its latest research,
America’s Changing Religious Identity
, with key findings like, “White Christians now account for fewer than half of the public” and “White evangelical Protestants are in decline—along with white mainline Protestants and white Catholics”.

It is an idea that Steve Bannon suggested is driving the Catholic Bishops response to the Trump administration’s efforts to end DACA: Catholics “need illegal aliens to fill the churches”.

Others have picked up a different angle. Mark Silk writes in Stop the presses! There’s a next generation for mainline Protestantism:

While mainline Protestantism continues to shed white adherents, it is doing a better job of keeping and/or attracting young white adults than either evangelicalism or Catholicism

This shouldn’t be so reassuring to mainline Protestant churches, but it is an important part of the conversation.

It should also be noted that the struggles of mainline Protestant churches is not just an American phenomenon. The Financial Times has a long piece about the Church of England’s fight to survive. We find similar writing in Canada, such as Religion in Decline – finding the reasons why.

Andrew Sullivan looks at this through a partisan lens in The Religious Right’s Suicidal Gay Obsession.

Perhaps some of this comes down to Matthew 25,

‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

Perhaps also, some of this comes back to the stories of individuals struggling through their own vulnerabilities as a sign of God’s enduring love for us. I’ve always like the phrase the Episcopalians use, “Risen Lord, be known to us in the breaking of the bread.” I remember hearing a priest talk about how when Jesus appeared to the disciples after the resurrection, they recognized Him by His wounds. They knew Jesus by his brokenness, his vulnerability.

That priest has had her share of struggles, and a local New Hampshire paper just wrote about her in Monadnock Profile: Sharing faith is the Rev. Elsa Worth's mission.

As an Episcopalian, I identify as being part of “resurrection people”. There is a future for Christianity. There is a future for religious news writers. There is a future for my own journey and my own writing. I hope to get a clearer sense of that through the Religion and News Media course I am taking as well as the other courses I am and will be taking in seminary and what I am reading online. I hope you will come along with me.

September 9th

Rethinking the Purpose of a Seminary Education

Thursday, I got into a wide ranging discussion which drifted over to question of how we welcome people who are different from ourselves. I brought up the book Radical Welcome by the Rev. Stephanie Spellers, which is on my seminary reading list. It has been a very important book to me which I expect to come back to often. In our discussion, we spoke a little bit about praying for President Trump as well as for Steve Bannon. We moved on to talking about what we need to do to truly welcome homeless people into our churches. It was a great discussion, and at the end, a friend commented to me that I needed to keep in mind was that the reading list is not for me, but for the communities I am part of.

To a certain extent, I feel a little selfish in my seminary studies. It is something I am enjoying greatly and I could easily fall into the idea that I’m doing it for myself, and my relationship with God. Yet we live in communities. My studies are also for the communities I’m part of, and not just in some future time when I become ordained or find more regular opportunities to preach, but right now.

So now, my mind is spinning with ideas about writing blog posts I might write, conversations I might have, this semester, right now, about ideas I am encountering. It is balanced with thoughts about the amount of reading and writing I have to get done for my classes. We shall see how much makes it to this blog. Stay tuned.