community


I attended a Families Belong Together rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan earlier today. It was one of several hundred rallies nationwide devoted to the cause of reuniting families (and more broadly to promoting a more welcoming stance towards immigrants). Perhaps a thousand people gathered downtown at Rosa Parks Circle to wave signs, listen to speakers, and sing together in Spanish and English. It’s easy to be skeptical about what such rallies accomplish–at minimum, to be effective they need to be combined with more traditional and longstanding ways of exercising power. The protest rally perhaps is most potent as a modern liturgy, one that shapes our ways of thinking and of living with each other. In any event, here are a few pictures from the rally:

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We all know, or at least know of, some poor soul who encounters one misfortune after another. They give us pause, the unfortunate; we feel sorry for them, we wish we could help, and sometimes we can do a little something that makes things marginally better. Usually they don’t occupy our thoughts for long, though: we quickly shift our focus to something more pleasant. Before doing so, we may try to come to terms with what’s happened by blaming (“If only he hadn’t done that“) or glib truisms (“Life isn’t fair.”) It takes quite a bit to disturb us in a way that sticks with us for days. For me, Matthew Desmond accomplished that feat with his book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Broadway Books, 2016).

Desmond, a Princeton sociologist, moved into a dilapidated trailer park in southern Milwaukee and later into a rooming house in the city’s North Side. In both areas, he encountered plenty of people on the edge–people who were having to spend 70 or 80 percent of their income on rent. That left them vulnerable, like riding in an overloaded boat that can be swamped even by small waves. Once that happens, choices become extremely difficult–whether to buy food, pay rent, or pay a utility bill when there isn’t money for all three, for example. It’s become more and more likely that poor renters will find themselves in this situation:

“Since 2000, the cost of fuels and utilities had risen by more than 50 percent, thanks to increasing global demand and the expiration of price caps. In a typical year, almost 1 in 5 poor renting families nationwide missed payments and received a disconnection notice from their utility company.” p. 15

“In 2013, 1 percent of poor renters lived in rent-controlled units; 15 percent lived in public housing; and 17 percent received a government subsidy, mainly in the form of a rent-reducing voucher. The remaining 67 percent–2 of every three poor renting families–received no federal assistance. This drastic shortfall in government support, coupled with rising rent and utility costs alongside stagnant incomes, is the reason why most poor renting families today spend most of their income on housing.” p. 303

Once tenants fall behind, they lose many of their legal protections. They can’t withhold rent if the property is dangerous or in disrepair, and court eviction if they make a report to a building inspector. As a result, renters in arrears often have to endure miserable living conditions. For example, Doreen and her children, one of the families Desmond introduces us to, have holes in the walls, a door off its hinges and clogged drains in the toilet, bathtub, and sink. Desmond describes the eventual effect on the family:

“Doreen stopped cooking, and the children ate cereal for dinner. Patrice [an adult daughter] slept more. The children’s grades dropped, and Mikey’s teacher called saying he might have to repeat, mainly because of so many missed homework assignments. Everyone had stopped cleaning up, and trash spread over the kitchen floor.” p. 257

The family had previously lived for seven years in much better quarters, but had been evicted because police investigating a neighborhood shooting had come to the door, saw the house was a mess, contacted Child Protective Services, who in turn called the building inspector, who cited the landlord. Doreen was behind in rent because volunteering in New Orleans after Katrina had cost her too much. Thus the landlord could retaliate for being cited by evicting Doreen, so he did. In another incident, a young woman named Crystal called 911 to report domestic violence occurring in the apartment above hers. The police responded, but later contacted Sherrena, the landlord, notifying her that they were called because of nuisance activity on her property and would charge her for future enforcement costs. Sherrena responded by taking out eviction papers on Crystal.

Desmond describes the details of the eviction process, from eviction court to the moving crews and sheriff’s deputies that spend all day every day evicting one tenant after another. Those being evicted were given a choice; have all their belongings stacked on the curb or have them taken to storage and pay a monthly storage fee until they could get them out. Some choice! Some homes were neat and tidy, others not so much:

“Sometimes renters had already abandoned the place, leaving behind dead animals and rotting food. Sometimes the movers puked. ‘The first rule of evictions,’ Sheriff John liked to say, ‘is never open the fridge.'” p. 114

Some evictions seem vindictive, as when Ned and Sue were evicted from their trailer and moved in with friends in another trailer; the landlord decided to evict the friends as well. Sometimes a child’s problems are the cause: Arleen’s teenage son kicked a teacher in the shin; when the landlord found out she told Arleen she had to leave or would be evicted. Whatever the cause of the eviction, it’s often tremendously hard for the evicted family to find new quarters. Arleen had been evicted before, and called 90 landlords before finding someone willing to rent to her.

Evictions disproportionately affect blacks and women. In the poorest black neighborhoods, “1 female renter in 17 was evicted through the court system each year, which was twice as often as men from those neighborhoods and nine times as often as women from the city’s poorest white areas.” (p. 98)

Those who are evicted are more likely to subsequently lose their jobs, experience other material hardships such as hunger, and be depressed. Not only those who are evicted suffer, but the neighborhood suffers as well: Desmond found that neighborhoods with high eviction rates have higher violent crime rates the next year. Some of Desmond’s subjects found themselves on the verge of eviction because of poor choices they made. Yet most poor Milwaukee residents had an incredibly small margin for error, and some ended up on the street when the choice they made was reasonable given the circumstances. For example, Arleen’s previous eviction resulted in part from having helped pay her sister’s funeral expenses. What sort of society is set up so that providing a little assistance for a funeral puts someone at risk for homelessness?

Besides those who actually experience eviction, there are many who manage to keep a roof over their heads but struggle to do so. Desmond indicates that 1 in 5 renting families in the US spends half or more of their income on housing. They struggle not just because of low and stagnant wages, but also because landlords can profit by exploiting the poor. In the poorest neighborhoods, housing is dilapidated or in disrepair but only costs marginally less than in other parts of the city. Our housing problem can only be addressed by major societal changes. Desmond mentions especially legal aid to the poor and a universal voucher program.

In the meantime I’m troubled. I’m troubled for Doreen, for Crystal, for Ned and Sue, for Arleen, and for everyone who has been evicted. I’m troubled that I live in a society that does so little to help those without access to adequate housing. And I’m troubled by my inability to help. Thanks to Desmond, I imagine that I’ll stay troubled. I hope his message troubles enough of us that together we can make a difference.

 

The recent pop song “Stand by You” by Rachel Platten includes the following lyrics:

Even if we can’t find heaven, I’m gonna stand by you
Even if we can’t find heaven, I’ll walk through Hell with you
Love, you’re not alone, ’cause I’m gonna stand by you.

It’s an uplifting anthem even though, if you really think about it, if you’re actually walking through hell, having someone beside you would probably only marginally improve the experience. Presumably the language is figurative, and the message is “I’ll be with you even through the hard times.”

The video for the song doesn’t contain any walking-through-hell scenes, either literal or figurative–not that I could tell, anyway. Instead, it shows Rachel singing and people showing warmth and caring to others. At one point, what looks like a church choir joins Rachel, clapping and dancing enthusiastically. Maybe no one is finding heaven, but they certainly seem optimistic in their pursuit of it.

All this reminds me of my church. I wrote last September that we had dwindled to just a few members and were considering disbanding. That prospect troubled me, since those who remained had invested so much in the church, serving and supporting one another. Though the situation looked grim in one sense, in another way I thought we were exactly what a church should be. I wrote about our conversations with each other then:

“It felt at the meeting like we had spent years climbing a mountain, slipped back down nearly to the base, and were wondering if we had it in us to climb the mountain again. But what if the mountain has nothing to do with how many members we have or how many attend Sunday services? What if the mountain we needed to climb was to be faithful to Christ through hardship and to let him shape us so that we became more like him? In that case, judging from what happened at the meeting, we’ve already climbed the mountain and are at or near the summit.”

We decided then to continue as a congregation, and worshiped together every week for almost five months. We had a few more people who were once peripheral members attend more often, but for the most part it was the same dozen people who continued praying for each other, singing together, studying the Bible, and sharing our joys and sorrows with each other.

Recently we had another meeting. The pastor said that, though we weren’t in financial difficulty yet, we couldn’t afford to pay his salary for an extended period of time. He was feeling pulled to be in a larger, more conventional church. A few other people expressed the same desire, and some of the rest acknowledged that, as much as it pained them, the best decision would probably be to disband. We all said that we want to maintain our relationships, and we made plans to meet regularly with one another once our Sunday morning services stopped. Our last worship service as an organized church was yesterday.

I am said about this. I’m consoled, though, by the thought that, during our time together, we truly constituted the church of Christ, and did so more purely and maturely than I had ever seen before.

What does all this have to do with finding heaven? A few weeks ago, I ran across a reference to something Jonathan Edwards said about the church and heaven. Edwards asked, how is the church like heaven? He decided that what made the church on earth like heaven wasn’t the signing or the Bible reading or the sermons. It wasn’t the meetings and activities that members attended or the charismata, the gifts they possessed. It was love. D.A. Carson, who summarized what Edwards said about the church, added:

“The greatest evidence that heaven has invaded our sphere, that the Spirit has been poured out upon us, that we are citizens of a kingdom not yet consummated, is Christian love.” (In Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of I Corinthians 12-14)

So, having been part of a church where everyone loves everyone else–and lives out that love by listening, encouraging, reaching out, and helping–is to have found heaven. My church no longer meets, but still it lives on, as long as that love endures (and the Apostle Paul promises that it endures forever–see I Corinthians 13:13). Sure I’m sad, but mostly I’m grateful. Why did God bless me by letting me experience heaven while still on earth? I may never know. But, having found heaven (or, rather, being found by it), I look forward to the next time I’m there, regardless of which side of the grave that happens.

This past Wednesday my church had the sort of meeting no church ever wants to have. We met to decide whether to continue as a church or disband. When I joined the church shortly after moving to the area three years ago, I never thought things would come to this. It was always a small church, but it was vibrant, with lots of college students and young professionals. Church services were (and still are) joyful but also a time for deep, quiet reflection; sermons were rich and encouraging. The church wasn’t really growing, but that was largely because so many of those who left had been inspired to go to seminary or enter church work of some kind. The future seemed bright.

There were a few problems. We were a small church, and there weren’t many people to do the work that was entailed in keeping everything going. Some members started complaining about the workload. About a year ago, a few members left; so as not to burden the remaining members, the steering team cut back on some things we were doing. That affected programs, and some people became dissatisfied that the church didn’t have the programs they wanted. More people left. In about the past three months the loss of members cascaded, and, finally, there was a church service in the middle of August that nobody attended (that’s not quite true; the pastor and five people were there). So, the natural question became, should we continue or just disband? And if we continue, how can we become a sustainable church again? Thus the meeting.

Twelve people attended, plus one via Skype. There was a couple in their fifties and their daughter, a couple in their forties, two couples somewhere around 30 (I’m bad at estimating ages so this sentence may be mostly inaccurate), the pastor, and his wife. I was the oldest person there. A teenager, daughter of the second couple, joined us after work. Our only remaining college student had a class and couldn’t make it.

The pastor and the head of the steering team had drawn up a list of four options, three of which were to go on in some fashion and the fourth of which was to disband. We each talked about how we saw the church and what we thought would be the best course of action. Several people mentioned being discouraged by the work that it would take to rebuild the congregation. A couple with young children said they thought it might be best for their kids to go to a church with more programs. Someone asked our pastor whether it would be a relief if he no longer had to lead a struggling church. He didn’t think so, but said he was shaken when only five people came to a service and thought he didn’t have the energy to cope with that happening many more times. His wife broke down when she talked about how hard it is to set up for a service not knowing if anyone will come.

At the same time, about half of us were leaning toward continuing. Even those who were leaning the other way talked about not wanting to give up the community we have together. We are, indeed, a family to each other. We have gotten to know each other incredibly well and care deeply for each other. One person who is thinking of leaving asked, “But couldn’t we still meet together to talk about faith?” Isn’t that kind of what church is? The teenager said she loved her church and that all the adults treated her like a person, not just a kid. Everyone was open; everyone got support even if they expressed views different from the rest of the group. We couldn’t find resolution, though. Toward the end of the meeting I didn’t want the church to disband but I had a sense of dread that we might have to do so. I think I wasn’t alone in that dread.

We decided to wait one week before making a decision. I hardly slept at all that night; I was in misery since I couldn’t see a way forward. Early the next morning, as I reflected (or maybe obsessed) on the meeting, it dawned on me that something remarkable had occurred there. These twelve people (I won’t include myself because I was the last of those present to join) had invested themselves in the church without holding back. Everyone had picked up the slack for someone else who either wouldn’t sign up to help or signed up and didn’t follow through. I suspect everyone felt abandoned by members who seemed committed or even led the church (did I mention that all but one member of the steering team left this summer?), then disappeared. If anyone had a right to throw up their hands and walk away, to rail at those who left, to blame the pastor or leadership or God or anybody else that came to mind, to say “I told you so” about suggestions not taken and warnings not heeded, to remind us all of how much they had done, it was these people.

Yet none of them did. No one said they wanted to walk away in disgust, no one vented, no one blamed.  Every person there was open, often to the point of rawness, about their feelings, and none of these feelings were toxic. Everyone listened, everyone empathized, everyone encouraged the others. More than anything else, everyone loved each other. I believe that God’s Spirit was present, ministering to each of us through everyone else. Thinking back over my sixty-plus years of participating in various churches, I could recall only one other meeting in which I sensed the Spirit was present to this degree.

I shared these thoughts with a friend who has been a pastor’s wife for over thirty years. Her take was that God must have been working for years to get us to that point, stripping away the illusions and false hopes so just love remained. She and her husband had a similar experience once early in their ministry. The church they were then serving went through a tremendous struggle and were left with just a faithful few. They considered closing, but didn’t, and now are serving their community in wonderful ways. She said something like this: “God doesn’t accomplish his purposes by building big churches with lots of programs. Christ works through small groups who have been purified for his purpose. You’re one of those groups.”

Maybe we are. I was still left wondering what it would mean for us to be a successful church. We’ve been thinking that we need to build our numbers up. It felt at the meeting like we had spent years climbing a mountain, slipped back down nearly to the base, and were wondering if we had it in us to climb the mountain again. But what if the mountain has nothing to do with how many members we have or how many attend Sunday services? What if the mountain we needed to climb was to be faithful to Christ through hardship and to let him shape us so that we became more like him? In that case, judging from what happened at the meeting, we’ve already climbed the mountain and are at or near the summit.

And what about all the programs and activities that other churches have but we don’t? Some of those seem appealing to me as well. But aren’t those programs and activities for the purpose of spiritual formation–to change our hearts and minds so we become more like Christ? If that is happening to us in such a powerful way already, how many more programs do we really need? How much sense would it make to disband and go to other churches so that we can get into programs to teach us how to get what we already have?

How about the kids? We do have a worship time for them during the sermon, but they are missing out on the rich array of educational activities that many churches have. We probably can do better. Still, there are lots of kids who grow up in other congregations going to those activities and end up disliking the church and keeping their distance from all things religious. Are they really better off than our kids, all of whom seem to love our church as much as the teenager in the meeting does?

None of this means that we aren’t in a difficult position. We aren’t in financial straits yet, but will be eventually if something doesn’t change. At this point, I don’t know if we’ll decide to continue on. Still, since the meeting, my thoughts about what makes for a successful church have changed totally.

A couple days ago, I sent an email to those at the meeting, suggesting that maybe God’s intention all along was to bring us to this point where we love each other the way we do. I added that our church has become the most successful church I’ve ever been a part of. Just so they wouldn’t think I’m nuts, I carefully specified that I was using as my criterion of success that we become Christ-like. They know me  well, though, and probably knew before the email that I can be kind of nuts. That’s OK. They love me anyway.

So, we’ll meet again on Wednesday September 16. I ask for your prayers for us. And while you’re at it, pray for yourself, too, that, if it hasn’t happened up until this point in your life, you will someday be part of a community that loves God and each other the way we did on Wednesday. As I know all too well, being in that sort of church can be painful, but the joy far outweighs the pain.

jesus-christ-statue

UPDATE: When we met on Wednesday, we decided to continue meeting for at least a year. We’ll focus first of all on getting closer to each other and finding a way of worshiping that those wary of God or church might find easier to participate in. We started that process with our worship service today (9-12-15). I’m excited about what God is doing among us!

Persuading secular moderns that they should be holy is quite a challenge. Aiming this message primarily at young adults, who are bombarded by ceaseless messages to be successful, in the know, popular, or any number of other things besides holy makes the task all the more difficult. Brian Christopher Coulter, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Aiken, South Carolina and author of Be Holy: Find Identity/Find Belonging/Find Purpose, takes on the challenge. Coulter believes that seeking holiness is not a dreary religious obligation but something that will enrich life. He claims, “We are not invited to be holy because God needs working drones; God invites us to be holy because it is a better way for us to experience and live life (p. ix).”

Be HolyCoulter begins by alluding to the emptiness, thoughtlessness, and insecurity that characterize much of modern life. He isn’t interested in exploring these in any depth, though; he’s mainly interested in offering solutions. His answers come from orthodox Christianity, which is to say that faith in Christ is essential to him. This means more than accepting Christ’s invitation to “a relationship of forgiveness and mercy;” it also includes the life that subsequently becomes possible.

Coulter considers what the Bible says about being holy. To be holy is to be set apart. God is holy in that he is distinct from other gods and from creation. This holy God also sets his people apart; he instructs them to be holy. Holiness is more than ritual purity; it is a way of living in the world. Coulter suggests this way of living has three elements: “We reflect our Holy God by being set apart from all that is not holy, for all that is holy, and with all who are holy (p. 31).” These three elements then become the structure for the rest of the book: “set apart from” entails finding our identity, “set apart for” implies having a purpose, and “set apart with” involves belonging to a community.

In my initial reading, I thought Coulter was being too simplistic about what it means to have identity, belonging, and purpose. I had the most difficulty with identity. Coulter is certainly right in saying “Who we are is known, revealed, and loved by God (p. 59).” I love the quote he uses from Brennan Manning: “Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. This is the true self. Every other identity is illusion (p. 55,6).” But isn’t it more complex than this? How do we understand the political, racial, gendered, and socioeconomic aspects of who we are? How do we sort out our views of what we can know, what is, and what is good? How do we learn what our gifts and abilities are?

Eventually I realized that I was trying to read the book as a psychological do-it-yourself guide to the issues of adolescence and early adulthood. That isn’t what Coulter has written. An early clue to his intent is his allusion to Clark Kent (i.e. Superman) in CW network’s show Smallville. Clark already has all his superpowers, but he doesn’t know what to do with them. The issue he faces is not to acquire superpowers:

“It is about embracing the gifts he has been given. It is about embracing his destiny to be Superman.
“This is us with holiness. Our choice seems to be less about becoming holy and more about embracing holiness (p. 20).”

Thus, identity, belonging, and purpose are not something we have to work to acquire. They are gifts from God that we need to accept. Accepting these gifts entails living out certain practices in our day-to-day life. Coulter does a nice job of showing how practices such as baptism, Sabbath observance, prayer, and the Eucharist fit into this holy, set-apart life.

Though I’m much older than Coulter’s target audience, I read this book because I am a Christian who is interested in being holy. The book is mostly about the early stages in the journey towards holiness, but it also contains much that is of interest to those further along the path towards maturity. As might be expected given his target audience, Coulter uses many examples from popular culture–celebrity quotes, music, movies, TV, and the like. Less expected are his references to writers with some intellectual heft, including Kierkegaard, Schleiermacher, Walter Brueggemann, and Thomas Merton. Sometimes, I wished Coulter had developed further the points made by these thinkers–Kierkegaard on the longing for meaning, for example, or Brueggemann on the Sabbath. Still, the references are available for those who wish to explore them more fully, and it is nice to know that Coulter’s ideas were informed by such thinkers.

Coulter writes clearly. He pauses every page or so to emphasize his main points in a few short sentences, each standing as a separate paragraph, as in this from the section on belonging:

“Prayer builds community.
“Prayer builds relationships.
“Be holy.
“Pray (p. 102).”

These staccato-like sentences serve as useful summaries. I never did get acclimated to his use of hashtags to make wry comments, but this was easy enough to ignore. I recommend Coulter’s book not only for young adults interested in the spiritual life, but also for older adults, be they newly interested in holiness or further along the faith journey but wishing to reflect on the nature of that journey.

Note: Thanks to Chalice Press for a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I recently read Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church by Paul Louis Metzger of Multnomah Biblical Seminary.  It was a book that seemed to promise an incisive commentary of the consumer mindset in American Christianity.  I found the case Metzger made to be unconvincing, though.

The first chapter is promising; Metzger provides an excellent historical account of how 19th century evangelical social concern dissipated in 20th century fundamentalism and evangelicalism.  He notes that “the approach taken by the Religious Right, the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, and the like over the last few decades does not exemplify an apolitical orientation or the abandonment of social policies; rather, it exemplifies an adherence to political and social policies that give the appearance of being fixated on conservative, middle-class American social values.”

Such middle class values include materialism and consumerism.  It shouldn’t be hard to demonstrate the extent and effects of consumerism in America and its churches, but Metzger puffs away ineffectively at that task.  He says things like the following: “The consumerist mindset entails giving consumers what they want, when they want it, and at the least cost to consumers themselves.”  Maybe the marketplace gives people things but it’s hard to imagine the “consumerist mindset” giving anyone anything.  Then there’s this:  “The consumerist free-market spirit disguises itself as an angel of light.”  Who is this costumed ephemeral being—this “consumerist free-market spirit”?  I suspect that Metzger isn’t actually positing poltergeists but is instead suggesting that merchants and consumers justify as beneficial their attitudes that support selling and buying.  I wish his argument didn’t rely so heavily on metaphor.  Also, there’s hardly any documentation provided here.

Metzger does make some good points about the church.  For example, he points out that the “homogeneous unit principle”—the view that it is desirable and effective to grow churches by targeting homogenous groups of people—can lead to escapism, upward mobility, and suspicion of those who are different.   He adds that when churches put too much emphasis on providing stability and security to congregants, such stability and security “can become diabolical and idolatrous.”  He complains that when people choose churches that they think will best meet their needs they are following a consumerist mindset.  He asserts that “the church must resist treating members as though there are potential customers, selling impersonal religious commodities and commodifying relationships.”  Metzger believes that focusing on the Lord’s Supper will facilitate such resistance and motivate ministries of relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution.  I particularly like the following quote:

“That the whole Christ (totus Christus) is present to each assembly in every location where the celebration of the Lord’s Supper bears witness should awaken each assembly to be concerned for the total church in a given region, not just for those physically present.  It also suggests that these churches should work together for the common good of Christ’s kingdom in that region.”

What can churches do in concert with each other that would reduce consumerism and commodification?  Metzger suggests that rich Christians recognize that they have something to receive as well as something to give to the poor, that all recognize they are both victim and victimizer, that affluent Christians redistribute their wealth, and that we give glory to God rather than take it for ourselves.  I don’t disagree with any of this program.  However, taking such steps would seem to first require both an awareness of how affluence can damage us and a commitment to a more just society.  I didn’t find Metzger particularly helpful at fostering that awareness and commitment.

I’ve written previously about self-presentation on social media sites.  Thus I was interested in a recent ABC News article describing a study linking Facebook use to depression.  Heavier Facebook users were found to be more likely to report being unhappy.  They were also more likely to think others are happier and have better lives than they do.  Why might there be a connection?  The article suggests that it’s because the photos posted by other Facebook users are much more likely to be smiling and cheerful rather than frowning and glum.  Thus, frequent Facebook visitors are presented with an endless parade of grinning faces, and conclude that everyone else is having a better time than they are.

I don’t have access to the original article, and thus don’t have many details about the methodology employed, but I wonder whether the above explanation is warranted.  Isn’t it equally plausible that depression causes rather than is caused by excessive Facebook use?  Couldn’t it be that people who start off by suspecting that everyone else has a better life than they do are drawn to Facebook as a way to confirm those suspicions?

Whether Facebook use is cause or effect, the study does suggest that there are plenty of unhappy souls staring at computer screens, looking at pictures of smiling people.  Maybe we need to give such viewers a lift by posting more pictures of ourselves frowning or scowling.  Why, though, are so many of us posting smiling pictures of ourselves?  It isn’t because we’re actually smiling all the time.  There’s quite a bit of impression-management that takes place on the typical Facebook wall, so that what is seen by others is a carefully calculated fiction.    In his book The Church of Facebook, Jesse Rice describes what is happening as follows: “Fear is very much part of the climate of Facebook.  When we are afraid of what people think of us, we work hard to craft just the right image composed of just the right pictures, personal information, and status updates.  We position and reposition the spotlights on our Facebook portraits to reflect our most interesting side.  The emphasis is on being clever, not on being genuine.”  (as quoted in Christian Reflection: Virtual Lives, p. 38) We want to make a favorable impression, and are hiding our real selves behind well-burnished personae.  Others don’t know us, and we don’t know ourselves.

Are online self-presentations inevitably inflated and fraudulent?  Couldn’t we instead strive to be authentic?  A recent post by Cathleen Falsani on the God’s Politics blog describes authentic relationships occurring via social media.  She had used Facebook only for entertainment and casual social interaction until a day in April, 2008, when she read a status update reporting the death of Mark, a friend.  She and dozens of others who knew Mark shared stories and pictures about him.  A thread was started, one that still continues.  Falsani writes:

“If you had told me a few years ago that I would find community — real, authentic, deeply connected, deeply faithful community — online, I would have scoffed. I’m not, by nature, a joiner.  And yet, here we are, almost four years of daily interaction later, with a communion of 20 souls around the world. Since we formed this unlikely community online, we’ve walked with each other through sickness and pregnancies, the death of parents and siblings, job losses and career changes, one-and-a-half presidential elections, recession and war, adoptions, divorces and even a marriage between two friends who met through the thread.”

The bonds she developed as a result of daily online communication were so strong that, a few years in, she and her family moved from Chicago to Laguna Beach, California so they could regularly interact in person with several other members of the group.  Facebook need not be an avenue for concealment and dissimulation; Falsani found genuine fellowship there, and her experience suggests that the rest of us can do the same.

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