What Does a Horse Race Teach Us About Ourselves

Growing up in West Virginia, if you asked me to name one thing about Kentucky, I would have quickly shouted out the words “home of the Kentucky Derby.” I can still remember the sounds of Jim McKay welcoming viewers of ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” to the Derby each first Saturday of May. For me, it was Sunday Silence in 1989 that got me hooked on the race.

When I moved to Kentucky in 2007, the first thing that stood out to me was that there was more to the horse racing industry than just Louisville and Churchill Downs. There was Keeneland in Lexington, which fills the area of Versailles Road each spring and fall with race fans. There was the all-day coverage in the Louisville and Lexington television markets that focused on the undercard to the Derby, which only recently has NBC started to broadcast.

You cannot get more entrenched in the culture and customs of Kentucky than with horse racing and the Kentucky Derby.

Which is probably why many of us were shocked at the outcome of Saturday’s race. On a sloppy track that looked more like the infield of Woodstock than a credible racing surface, Maximum Security burst through a crowded field to seemingly win the 149th Kentucky Derby. Chaos and controversy soon dominated the conversation after two jockeys filed an objection to the outcome – essentially calling foul on Maximum Security – for interference.

Stewards immediately looked into the objection and, 20-plus minutes later, ruled that Maximum Security had, in fact, interfered with War of Will. This led to Maximum Security being disqualified, becoming the first presumptive derby winner to be disqualified and only the second to cross the line first and not to be declared the official winner. The first came in 1968 when Dancer’s Image apparent win was thrown out after a drug test found illegal drugs in the horse’s system, which gave the win to Forward Pass.

Because Maximum Security’s disqualification, and subsequent win by Country House, came in the social media era, it became the latest hot topic to discuss. Within minutes, “horse racing” experts from across the nation posted comments – some filled with anger and vitriol – of what they believed was right or not right about the actions, disqualification, and win by Country House. This has continued this week as Country House’s camp has announced the horse will not run in the Preakness next week.

For the sake of transparency, I did post on social media some sarcastic comments during the review and aftermath. The comments amounted to a bad dad joke that in professional wrestling a champion cannot lose their title by way of disqualification. Trust me, I know a bad joke when I see it, and I have a hard time running away from them,

I wonder, though, what does all of this say about us? Maximum Security’s disqualification is just the latest in a long example of a modern thirst to want to speak without knowledge, to jump to conclusions without context, to yell and scream without listening. It is a systematic issue that is destroying our ability to understand and appreciate the complexities of life, or even to hear from opposing view points or to wait for things to play out. We believe we have to speak and be quick about it. We even believe we have to speak with anger.

This isn’t just happening in society. I’m seeing this play out across the church today as we wrestle with the important issues facing us in our work of making disciples of Jesus Christ. We reflect the means of communication we see from society in our conversations about the future of the church, whether the United Methodist Church should break up, or even what it means to do ministry together. We respond in anger more than we listen to one another.

In doing so, I wonder if we are missing out on two important verses of reflection from James. In James 1:19, James writes that we “must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.” These are words that we ignore in our desire to have a quick and impassioned response. If we need more clarification on what James means, he writes later that the tongue “is a small thing that makes grand speeches. But a tiny spark can set a great forest on fire. And the tongue is a flame of fire.” (James 2:5b-6a, NLT) Our words can do as much damage to society and one another as they can to lift up and inspire.

What limits our ability to stop, listen, and slow the anger is that we get caught up in the ground swell of anger and conversation, which creates within us a desire to speak. Social media is just one avenue where this takes place. We see this at the tables of McDonald’s, our conversations around the kitchen table, and in discussions among friends. Our desire to be seen as knowledgeable and quick with a response is not because of social media, but part of our own vanity in wanting to be seen and heard.

Our society is filled with people who believe they have to have something to say, even if we do not know anything about the subject we are talking about. This tendency is destroying our ability to hear from one another and to listen to disagreeing voices. Until we take it upon ourselves to slow down, refrain from always speaking, and listen to one another, we will continue to see the decaying of a society that is quick to speak and equally quick to get angry.

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Love Your Enemy: How Christ Calls Us to Love People We Disagree With

One of my favorite television shows is “The West Wing.” The classic Aaron Sorkin drama about life in the White House was one of the best written dramas and more than 10 years after its last episode aired it still fascinates viewers with its impressive dialogue and storytelling.

The show is one I turn to when I want to get away from the world. Abbi in her loving kindness gave me the entire series for Christmas one year, and life has never been the same for my viewing habits.

The other day I had an episode on in the background while sitting in my home office. It was an episode I’ve seen dozens of time. A Republican lawyer outwits the deputy speechwriter on a national public affairs program. This led to the president wanting to hire her, which led to the frustration of key staff members. At the end of the episode, she is in the chief of staff’s office waiting to give her response to the job offer when she meets the deputy chief of staff and the same deputy speechwriter she debated. Their conversation quickly turned to one of the issues discussed in the episode – gun control in the aftermath of a presidential assassination attempt. After a lengthy discussion, the lawyer ended the conversation by saying the problem with their position was that they didn’t like people who who like guns.

I mention the story not to talk about guns or even gun control, but to reflect upon the meaning of that line. She essentially said, “You don’t like people who disagree with you.” Something about it, even though I’ve heard it time and time again, stayed with me. I believe it is because I see it in our conversations today.

We don’t like people who disagree with us.

It shouldn’t take us long to recognize this issue. We struggle with loving and respecting anyone who disagree with us.

This is something I pay a lot of attention to, both as a pastor and also someone who is interested in public theology (how Christ moves us into the public square to be a faithful witness of Jesus Christ in the world). We are experiencing the rise of what I call “acceptable anger” towards those we disagree with. What I mean is that we find it within the boundaries of normal behavior to demean or ridicule personally those who have a different view than what we may hold. Our actions and words are intended not to discuss the issues, but to dismiss those who would dare to see things from a different perspective. We find it acceptable, because we believe that if we are right then it makes our response towards others automatically virtuous and righteous.

One of the places “acceptable anger” is displayed is on social media platforms. Facebook groups and posts that deal with various issues are often highlighted by resentment towards the people who have a different view. We write in such a way that we seek to separate ourselves from those who offer another perspective.

It is easy to dismiss this as a social media problem, and in some ways, it is because we are unable to personally interact with someone through the words we type it is not. Social media is a user-generated platform, which means how we engage social media is often a reflection of who we are and who we have become.

Where I notice this being especially bad is among fellow United Methodists as it relates to conversations on human sexuality and the upcoming 2019 General Conference. I am a member of several clergy online groups. The intent of these groups is to seek practical advice, discuss issues, and encourage one another in ministry. What often happens is that these platforms can be used by people to demean those who disagree with an interpretation of Scripture, perspective on the future of the church, and the issues facing the global movement of God’s kingdom. Posts quickly turn towards name calling towards anyone who has a different perspective.

These posts and comments are from pastors. If the shepherd of a congregation – the pastor – is dismissive towards others, how can the sheep – the flock of a congregation – know the way to truly loving others as God calls us to love?

I have always been struck by how Jesus’ words to love your enemies from Matthew 5:43 is one of the hardest to apply to our lives. An enemy is more than someone who seeks to do harm towards you. An enemy can be someone you disagree with and do not value because of their opinion. So, how do we love our enemy if our enemy is someone we disagree with?

Perhaps it is found in living out the Great Commandment: to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves. Love means we give of ourselves in deep connection and commitment to God. This is our response to God’s love towards us, which is reflected in God’s creation and presence in our lives.

Our love of God, then, shapes how we respond to one another. We are called to treat each other with the same love we would want shown towards us. That means we value people for who they are and meet them where they are. We can only do this when we see the imago Dei – the image of God – in those we disagree with. Genesis 1:27 reminds of how each person was created in the image of God to reflect the very character of God. Every person is of sacred worth, even those we disagree with, because they are beloved by God.

This changes our response to people. To treat people with love is to see them as someone of worth. It changes the conversation from seeing someone as an enemy, but as a person God loves in the same ways God loves us.

Richard Mouw, a Christian ethicist who wrote the book “Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil Word.” In the book, he shares how kindness and gentleness should be the defining mark of our relationship with others, especially with those we disagree with on certain issues. Mouw writes, “When Christians fail to measure up to the standards of kindness and gentleness, we are not the people God meant us to be.”

He is right. Our calling as Christ followers is to be above the practices of the world, especially as it relates to our conversations with one another about what it means to be the church. Being people of holy love doesn’t mean we cannot disagree with issues nor does it mean we ignore real issues so as not to offend anyone. What it means that in our conversations about the serious issues that face the church and, truly, the world, we must be ever mindful that within the person we disagree with is the imago Dei.

How different would our world be if we enter into them remembering that God’s image is in the person we disagree with?

Social Media, the Pastor, and the 2012 Election

Social media plays an important role in our lives. Many of us cannot go a few hours without checking Facebook, Twitter, or some other social networking site. These sites are important communication tools that helps us to stay connected with our friends and families.

Pastors and other church leaders are among the most active users of social networking sites. There are several benefits for this. Social networking sites allow for increased connection among members. It easily advertises church activities. Facebook and Twitter can also help in connecting with other pastors across the church. Of course, there are several other benefits that make it worthwhile for a pastor to consider how social media sites can enhance the ministry in a community and congregation.

Social media also comes with a risk. Many have written about this from the perspective of boundaries, arguing that social media creates challenges to proper ministerial boundaries. However, I want to approach an issue regarding social media and the pastor from another angle. That is this: In an election year, does a comment or action on social media constitute an endorsement of a certain candidate or ideology?

This is not a straightforward question. There are several components that must be addressed. What can a pastor do or not do during an election season? What constitutes an endorsement Is a Facebook or Twitter site that of a private individual or that of church leader? What does a social media endorsement look like? Each of these subordinate issues will help us to discern this larger issue regarding the pastor, social media, and the 2012 election.

What Can a Pastor Do or Not Do?

In the simplest terms, a pastor cannot lead a church in a partisan direction. Interpreter Magazine has published a reminder of things pastors and churches can and cannot do in an election year. The list is focused on actions that would jeopardize a church’s tax status. A church is a nonprofit organization and can only educate. It cannot take a side that would support or endorse a candidate or partisan position.

There is also another reason a pastor should not lead a church in a partisan direction. That is because the church should not be defined by the realities of this world and the battles that exist between the “left” and the “right.” As followers of Christ, we are called to be defined by the mission and purpose of Jesus Christ, which calls to share the Good News of Jesus Christ to all the world and making disciples of all people.

If we lead a church in a partisan direction, it would limit a church’s ability to authentically proclaim the Gospel. A specific church that is defined by its association with a partisan perspective prevents it from being seen as a true witness of Jesus Christ.

A pastor must be careful about his or her words and actions during an election year. Sermons must not promote the virtues and qualities of a specific candidate. The pulpit must be free of any association with Republican or Democratic politics or candidates.

What is an Endorsement?

The other part of this larger question deals with endorsements. An endorsement is a public statement of support for a particular candidate. Endorsements can come in several forms, such as a public speech, a letter to the editor, or a campaign donation. These are public activities that announces an individual’s support for a candidate.

This has implications for social media. In our age of social networking, a social media endorsement would be any action or activity that shows a person’s support for one candidate or another. It could include “liking” a candidate’s page on Facebook, making a comment about whom a person will vote for, or writing a post defending the qualities of one candidate over another.

A pastor cannot make a public endorsement of one candidate or political party. Individually, a person who serves as a pastor can support one particular candidate over another and can discuss this with others, so long as it is not within the activities of the church or their role as a pastor.

This raises another important question: Is the individual ever separated from their role as a pastor? The answer to that question is “No.”

When the public sees an individual who serves as a pastor, they always see a pastor. Even in a secular age, a pastor is an important leader in many communities. The role of pastor is not easily separated from the person. When an individual person who is also a pastor makes a comment in support of one candidate or another, a person hearing this comment has a hard time not associating it with the person’s work as a pastor.

Is Facebook and Twitter an Extension of Ministry?

That acknowledgement helps us with this question about social media. While many of us share our personalities through social networking, these sites are a continuation of our ministries. Social media enhances what a pastor is able to do through their ministries in the local church. Even if a pastor uses social networking tools to connect with friends and families or to share photos of their children, a pastor must be wise to see social media as part of their ministries.

Does a Comment or Action on Social Media Constitute an Endorsement of a Certain Candidate or Ideology?

In conclusion, we turn to the larger purpose of this article. Can a pastor’s actions on social media be construed as an endorsement and action of support of one candidate or idea over another? The answer is most certainly yes.

Because the pastor cannot be separated from the individual and, thus, social media becomes an extension of his or her ministry, any action on social media forums must be done with the greatest of care. Liking a candidate’s Facebook page, for instance, is a public act of support of a specific candidate, which could be construed as an endorsement of that particular candidate.

As with all things, a pastor would be wise to establish deep boundaries with their use of social media, especially in an election year. Among these boundaries could include: Do not like any page or photo of a group or candidate that is involved in partisan politics; Do not make a comment in support of one candidate, group, or party; Do not link to articles that promotes a specific candidate.

The most important thing for a pastor is to simply be careful and attentive to what they are doing and how someone can perceive their social media usage. A good advice may be  to see ourselves as a lay member or a person who is interested in joining our church. Would our social media activity promote that we are a partisan political advocate or that  we are an authentic prophet and messenger of God’s love and truth during an election year?

Social Media Has Positive and Negative Influences on Friendships

Facebook says I have 360 friends. That is the total number of people who have, for some reason or another, agreed that they like enough about me and want to follow my life as a Christian, pastor, and husband. They people I’ve known since my childhood, people I worked with in my previous career, people I met in college and seminary, family members, church members, and, of course, fellow pastors.

But, 360 friends? That is twice the number of my high school graduating class. With that many friends, my calendar should be full with various activities with that unique collection of 360 people. Anyone who spends time on Facebook knows that might not be the case. The number of friends one has on Facebook does not show the number of close friends people have in their life.

Facebook is a Catch 22. On one hand, Facebook, and other social media sites, creates opportunities for connections that likely would not have been possible. On the other hand, social media sites strip away the basic ingredient to lasting friendships – face-to-face interaction – and replaces it with a marketing platform.

Social media is here to stay. There is no denying the power and influence social networks have in our daily lives. We must be willing to acknowledge both the good and bad that social networks offer regarding friendships.

Positive: Social media provides opportunities for reconnection. Social networking allows for people to reconnect with lost friends. Among those who follow me on Facebook are friends I had lost contact with. It is great to hear how they are doing and reconnect. This has brought joy to me and, I am sure, to those I have reconnected with. Without social networking, these reconnections would not have been possible.

Positive: Social media allows for quicker communication. As a pastor, social media is a blessing. I can receive prayer requests from church members and interact with them on a regular basis outside of the walls of church. Pastors have been among the leaders of the “Twitter revolution.” Social media gives pastors a quicker mode of communication to reach people, both inside and outside the church. A pastor’s use of social media must have boundaries in place. As for our friendships, social media allows us to share more quickly with our “friends.” Think of the many couples who have shared the wonderful news of an upcoming wedding or birth on Facebook. In this way, social media serves as a quicker phone tree to share information.

There are also negatives to using social media.

Negative: Social media can promote a false sense of connection. The number of “friends” on our Facebook pages does not indicate the number of close friends we have in our lives that we can depend upon. In this way, Facebook can promote a false sense of connection and deep relationship. What Facebook friends may be are deep acquaintances. True friendships must be fostered through regular interaction and personal sharing of life with one another. Social media cannot replace personal face-to-face communication with our friends.

Negative: Social media can create feelings of inadequacy. A recent Stanford study found that social media can promote the idea that everyone is happy. This is because we become self editors. We can edit what we share with others. It is only natural that we would want to put a positive spin on our lives. Why share that you didn’t do anything exciting except for watching reruns of “The Andy Griffith Show” and did the laundry? We paint the picture that everything is great, because we want people to see us as happy and that everything is OK. As the study suggests, by painting this picture we promote a false identity. Even more, there is the potential for someone to value their life based on the “great” life that they see their “friends” having on Facebook, which can create a sense of inadequacy. Social media users must be careful to not take it too seriously and to be honest about what they post. Of course, we must have boundaries in what we share with others, whether it is on Facebook or in face-to-face communications.

Social media has an important role to play in our lives. It can have both positive and negative influences on our friendships. We would be wise to consider how we use social media and what impact it has on our friendships. Social media cannot replace face-to-face friendships, which is the only true way to develop lasting and healthy relationships with our friends.

Social Media and the 2012 General Conference

I’m watching the 2012 General Conference from the extreme nosebleed seats: From the comforts of my office in Mackville, Ky., nearly 850 away. The blessings of a high-speed Internet connection and a capable laptop provides instant access through live streaming feeds of the plenary and worship sessions.

If that doesn’t provide enough access for someone interested in the decisions to be made at General Conference there is always social media. Facebook and Twitter were both active yesterday during the opening day of the conference. Perhaps anticipating this the church included an active feed of what was being said via #gc2012.

As with any conversation, social media has its benefits and distractions. This is especially noticeable during important  discussions and debates whether it is in the halls of Congress or in a convention center in Tampa.

The benefits to social media during General Conference should be obvious. It allows everyone to have a voice. With the “old media” forms, which I grew up with as a former journalist, only the “respected” voices would be heard on a television report or read in a newspaper’s account of an event. Social media’s involvement at General Conference allows for the voice of the marginalized and forgotten to be heard. Our leaders in Tampa need to hear from the entire movement of the United Methodist Church and not just those with political influence.

Social media also provides information on different issues. Recently I was informed through social media of an issue that will be discussed at General Conference. It is not one of the three major issues that will receive the most attention both inside and outside the church (reorganization, guaranteed appointment, and lifestyle discussions). Social media brings to light petitions “old media” would not have discussed. The large amount of petitions up for a consideration means not every issue will receive attention. Unfortunately, it also means important issues can get forgotten.

However, social media also has its drawbacks. This is true in regards to deep discussions about the future of the United Methodist Church.

The most obvious of these drawbacks is everyone has a voice. While we applaud that social media gives everyone a voice at the table we can also recognize its potential distraction to the process. The fact everyone has a voice does not guarantee that a person’s voice will be used in appropriate ways.

During the worship and plenary sessions, Twitter was filled with comments that were critical of whatever the given poster felt was inappropriate. During the opening worship, it ranged from the songs being used to the appropriateness of the style of worship. It was especially on display during the plenary session’s lengthy rules debate. Twitter was used to express frustrations with certain delegates and attempts to change the rules. Many of the frustrations came about if a rules change, especially regarding protests, would impact a person’s desires.

We would all be wise to be cautious about how we use social media to engage any process. Social media, and our 24-hour news cycle, does not offer time to provide appropriate reflection on important issues. We want to express things now. Often in the heat of the moment we are not taking the time to properly think through different perspectives. As well, the limit of 140 characters does not allow for appropriate discussions, so we must be wise on how we use this important forum.

As we go forward in General Conference, social media will be an important part of the story and will allow many to be a part of the process. It’s use can provide information and appropriate reflections, but let us hope that it does not become a stumbling block to hearing and doing the Father’s will.

The Perplexing Nature of Social Media

We live in a social media world.

In the last few years, our forms of communication have been dominated by Facebook and Twitter. We are inundated with status updates, tweets, friend requests, and follows. So much so, that our traditional forms of media will report on a tweet or a Facebook status from a celebrity, politician, or athlete as if it is major news. Case in point, was yesterday’s tweet from Rob Lowe suggesting that future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning would retire.

The evolution to a social media world is to be expected. In the last 100 years, we have seen a gradual progression in mass communication that has led to this point. What was once an industry, and a culture, dominated by the written word, we are becoming more and more engaged by the visual and the instant.

Now, this has some advantages. We can get information out quicker to people than in previous generations. We also have more freedom and flexibility in sharing. This comes as a great advantage in marketing and getting the word out to people about events and ideas, especially in the life of the church. The social media platforms gives the church more access to the people it desires to reach. This is a positive that cannot be understated.

However, social media and our technological world comes at a cost. Whether it is blogs, Facebook, Twitter, or other forms of communication, we have lost the personal interaction that is important in social relationships. While social media does well in bringing people together, it can also bring people apart. So often, we can see people on the Internet not as an individual but as a blank avatar. This allows for us to say things to someone who we likely would not say in a face to face conversation, especially if we disagree with something they say. Because we cannot see the individual we feel we have more freedom in criticizing or denouncing one’s views. It’s not the person we are writing against, but their representation on the Internet. This type of approach reduces the humanity of the other. It’s not just being done by those outside of faith, but also by those who are leaders in the church as well. We have all fallen victim to seeing profiles on social media as formless representations instead of a human interaction.

Our social media world also interacts with our personal world. We are becoming a people who struggle with face-to-face interaction. Our dinner conversations are more wrapped up in looking at our iPhones than seeing the face of the individual who is sitting next to us. We are all guilty of this, and I put myself in that category as well. Personal relationships must be fostered through things that social media cannot give. Relationships need eye contact, touch, and personal emotion, all of which we ignore if we focus only on technological forms of expression and communication.

This is not a new development. The past few decades have been a slow decline in the amount of personal face-to-face interactions we share with others. Social media only enhances what has been a growing problem of seeing the self as more important than the other.

Each of us must be willing to place boundaries on how we use the Internet. Some of us have not, and it causes severe problems, especially among our teens with cyberbullying. Parents must teach their children how to set proper frameworks for being on the Internet and monitor their children’s use of Social Media. As adults, we must be mindful of what we would say and be willing to stop ourselves from saying things we would not say in a personal and public setting. In the church, we must balance our engagement with the Internet with our promotion of humanity. If our engagement with social media, or other forms of communication, hinders our call to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ then we must question our motives and our actions on these platforms.

Social media is important and will play a role in our communication forms for years to come. We must engage this platform better than we are, today, and teach the proper usages of this important communication tool. If we do not, we run the risk of continuing the downward slope in personal communication. We cannot lose the personal in our quest for technology. If we do, we must just lose ourselves in the process.