Faith and technology: who is in control?

Adapted from yesterday’s message, “Who is in control?”

Technology allows me to distract myself by Facetiming with myself and taking a picture of it.

The world today is very different from the one that we were in even ten years ago. Teenagers nowadays share their passwords as a show of affection … yes, really. We’re a generation that has seen immense (particularly technological) change–and have adapted to it pretty seamlessly. We’re good at that. We own cell phones, computers; we’re on social media; we’ve joined the digital revolution without really giving it a second thought.

Because when something is as ubiquitous as media and technology, we usually don’t even think about it. It’s like oxygen; we don’t tend to think about how we breathe, about the biological or physiological processes that are going on; we just do it. And for many of us—I’d be so bold as to say all of us—this is the same with media and technology.

  • When we watch TV, we aren’t necessarily tuned in to what’s happening as we watch this show or that movie.
  • We’re a culture where we “like” somebody’s link or picture or comment on Facebook if it takes our fancy.
  • We post things online about our lives, and sometimes about other people’s lives, without thinking about the ramifications or the consequences.
  • When we see, hear, or read an ad or even the news, we often just receive it.

We don’t tend to actively think about how something impacts us or how we interact with it. And we don’t tend to think about how our faith might impact the role these things play in our lives.

At The District Church, we’re going through a series called Mustard Seeds. The background is from Matthew 17:20, where Jesus says, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will be so; and nothing will be impossible for you.” We want to talk through what it looks like for us to have faith to move mountains (and it’s not a lot!) in our everyday lives.

Yesterday, I talked about the impact of faith on technology, and framed it with the question, “Who is in control?” Technology is all around us, enabling us to do more, to see more, to experience more. The world of media and technology that we inhabit is not in essence good or evil. These things can be used for good or for harm.

  • We can send emails that build up or we can send emails that gossip and tear down.
  • We can be manipulated by the way a news channel spins its reports, or we can seek the truth and point others to it.
  • We can allow advertisers to tell us what we’re missing and how their product will make things all better, or we can laugh at the lie that is being told and remember that what we’re all missing, what we all need at root, is a Savior to rescue us from the disease of sin and selfishness.

Who is in control?

Sherry Turkle has this interesting story to tell, and I think it may resonate with many of us:

I check my e-mail first thing in the morning and before going to bed at night. I have come to learn that informing myself about new professional problems and demands is not a good way to start or end my day, but my practice unhappily continues. I admitted my ongoing irritation with myself to a friend, a woman in her seventies who has meditated on a biblical reading every morning since she was in her teens. She confessed that it is ever more difficult to begin her spiritual exercises before she checks her email; the discipline to defer opening her inbox is now part of her devotional gesture. (Alone Together, 154)

My friend John calls this, “the first battle of the day.” And it’s a battle I fight every morning too. Who is in control? Whose voice do I want to hear first thing in the morning and last thing at night?

It sounds really basic, right? I mean, we’re really talking about Facebook and the gospel? Email? Twitter? Texting?


Because it’s in the basics where the rubber hits the road. It’s all well and good to say, “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, mind, soul, and strength,” or “Love your neighbor as yourself,” but it’s in these basics–in the simple things–where that’s really worked out. One of the greatest disconnects that people outside the church see, and that people inside the church feel, is the disconnect between Sunday and the rest of the week—that what we hear and say and read and experience on Sundays doesn’t always slide very easily into the molds of Monday through Saturday. Well, it’s not just in the big things; actually, it’s faith worked out in the small things that in time forms the character that works itself out in the big things as well.

And so it matters what we do in the small things. So what does it look like to live out the gospel in and through your technology-saturated life?

  • Maybe it means taking a step back and turning up your sensitivity to how you engage and interact with technology, even just for a week, at first.
  • Maybe it means that when you get annoyed with somebody for not being present (because they’re checking their phone constantly), you also ask yourself, “Do I do this to other people?”
  • Maybe it means building structures or maybe even rules in your life for the ways and the places you utilize technology so that you can be more intentional—both in interpersonal relationships and in your relationship with God.
  • Maybe it means that, like Sherry Turkle’s friend, you choose not to check your email until after you’ve spent some time with God.

You can—you need to—figure out for yourself what it looks like for you to love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself.

In the beginning, in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were asked by a serpent, “Who is in control?” They answered, “Us,” and ate the forbidden fruit.

Three thousand years ago, in Babylon, three young men named Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were asked by a king on pain of death, “Who is in control?” They answered, “God,” and were thrown into the blazing furnace–in case you don’t know the end of the story, God came through for them.

And two thousand years ago, a man in Palestine named Jesus hung on a cross and was asked, “Who is in control?” He answered, “God. Forever and always, God. Even when it doesn’t look like it, even when you don’t understand it, God.” And this Jesus gave his life to take the sin of the world on himself, so that we might be liberated from the cycle of brokenness and death, to right relationship with God and with others. And in case you don’t know the end of the story, three days later, this man Jesus rose from the dead—that’s how you know God was in control. That’s how you know that God is still in control.

Here in 2012, you and I are asked the same question, “Who is in control?”

What’s your answer? And how are you going to back it up?

You can check out the full sermon online here.

UPDATE: Thanks to the Washington Post for picking this up in the local faith section.

The test of our work

Eugene Peterson:

The test of our work is not the profit we gain from it or the status we receive from it but its effects in creation.  Are persons impoverished?  Is the land diminished?  Is society defrauded?  Is the world less or more because of my work?

(Where Your Treasure Is, 139)

Reflections on The Pastor

Eugene Peterson is a pastor and author that I respect greatly, and whose words and spirituality have impacted me immensely—through his mentorship of my own mentor as well as books like Subversive Spirituality, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Where Your Treasure Is, Leap Over A Wall and Living the Resurrection. So it was with great eagerness that I bought his latest book, simply entitled The Pastor: A Memoir; I was very excited to learn from the life and experiences of a man who had influenced mine so much. My experience of vocational discernment very much mirrors Peterson’s, from the lessons I grew up with as a kid, to the experiences I had that—at least on the surface—had no business in the formation of a pastor, to the stumbling, fumbling journey into pastorhood: “Seemingly unconnected, haphazard events and people turned out to be organic to who I am” (25). Peterson described this journey as, “all the while becoming, without my knowing it, a pastor”(11).

As I take my own baby steps as a pastor, the lessons of someone who has faithfully walked the path that I seek to walk, and who has both the humility and the spiritual awareness to be attentive to what God is doing at every step, are especially valuable to me. I know I will make mistakes and I know I will never be done learning, but I also know—Peterson has taught me this over the last decade—that if I’m looking, I will see God at work in any and every situation; it is often—though not always—a matter of perspective.

A different perspective is something I often come away from Peterson’s writings with: a new insight, a better understanding, a fuller way of seeing something. This book is no different as, for instance, he describes the church as “a place where dignity is confirmed” (40), “a community of stories” (106), and, on a more cosmic level, “a colony of heaven in the country of death, a strategy of the Holy Spirit for giving witness to the already-inaugurated kingdom of God” (110).

And through the stories that he shares in the book of his own experiences and his reflections on them, I begin to understand a little more what it means to be a pastor—some of the joys and challenges I have already faced as well as some of the joys and challenges that I can look forward to.

I have already begun to see the truth to the words of George Arthur Buttrick that Peterson quotes, that the most important thing to do in preparing to preach each week is to meet with the people of the church: “There is no way that I can preach the gospel to these people if I don’t know how they are living, what they are thinking and talking about” (87). And I have already seen my tendency to deal with people as problems to be fixed; and Peterson also faced this temptation, but came to understand that “my work is not to fix people. It is to lead people in the worship of God and to lead them in living a holy life” (137).

The quiet, settled rooted spirituality that Peterson has written of, espoused, and lived out over decades is one that I have sought to emulate and become familiar with, and I look forward to continuing to grow in it. There’s a “kind of relaxed leisureliness that flows from a person who knows what he’s about, who knows where he’s going and what he’s doing. No need for hurry if you’re confident in who you are” (29). Especially for someone like myself, who has activist (read: busy!) tendencies, a spirituality that slows down, that brings peace, that provides deep roots, is especially necessary.

Perhaps most encouragingly, in reflecting on The Pastor, I have already seen the work that God has done and continues to do in my life in preparing me to be a pastor. I have had great friends and family who have walked before me on this road whose example I look up to: Clem, Gabe, John-Paul, Aaron, and more. And though I have never met him, Eugene Peterson is one whom I count as a spiritual father, who has a way of not just articulating experiences that I too have, but also of casting a vision for who I want to be:

I want to be a pastor who prays. I want to be reflective and responsive and relaxed in the presence of God so that I can be reflective and responsive and relaxed in your presence. I can’t do that on the run. It takes a lot of time. I started out doing that with you, but now I feel too crowded.

I want to be a pastor who reads and studies. This culture in which we live squeezes all the God sense out of us. I want to be observant and informed enough to help this congregation understand what we are up against, the temptations of the devil to get us thinking we can all be our own gods. This is subtle stuff. It demands some detachment and perspective. I can’t do this just by trying harder.

I want to be a pastor who has the time to be with you in leisurely, unhurried conversation so that I can understand and be a companion with you as you grow in Christ–your doubts and your difficulties, your desires and your delights. I can’t do that when I am running scared.

I want to be a pastor who leads you in worship, a pastor who brings you before God in receptive obedience, a pastor who preaches sermons that make scripture accessible and present and alive, a pastor who is able to give you a language and imagination that restores in you a sense of dignity as a Christian in your homes and workplaces and gets rid of these debilitating images of being a ‘mere’ layperson.

I want to be an unbusy pastor. (278)

The Christian life

I love this.

there is far more to this Christian life than getting it right. There is living it right. Learning the truth of God, the gospel, the scriptures involves understanding words, concepts, history. But living it means working through a world of deception, of doubt and suffering, a world of rejections and betrayal and idolatry.

We don’t grow and mature in our Christian life by sitting in a classroom and library, listening to lectures and reading books, or going to church and singing hymns and listening to sermons. We do it by taking the stuff of our ordinary lives, our parents and children, our spouses and friends, our workplaces and fellow workers, our dreams and fantasies, our attachments, our easily accessible gratifications, our depersonalizing of intimate relations, our commodification of living truths into idolatries, taking all this and placing it on the altar of refining fire–our God is a consuming fire–and finding it all stuff redeemed for a life of holiness. A life that is not reserved for nuns and monks but accessible to every Dick and Jane in every ordinary congregation.

Eugene Peterson, The Pastor, 230

(Please, please, please read The Pastor.)

The Artist

The artist has eyes to connect the visible and the invisible and the skill to show complete what we in our inattentive distraction see only in bits and pieces.

Eugene Peterson, The Pastor, 164