Live from APCE Conference – Nashville, TN

So today I’m presenting a workshop for the Association of Presbyterian Christian Educators at their 2010 Annual Conference in Nashville, TN.

Yesterday, I led a Presbymergent conversation group for those interested in exploring the intersection between the Emerging Church and the PCUSA — it was an interesting chat in light of all the recent proclamations of the “Death of the Emerging Church.” There was certainly much life to *our* conversation!

This morning, I led morning prayer with the assistance of my little Ukulele and the Book of Common Worship. What an interesting pair…

And, in about one and a half hours, I’ll be leading a workshop called “Open Source Education in Emerging Congregations.” We’ll explore Wikipedia, Twitter, Facebook, Linux, and Second Life — not just as “tools” to use in ministry, but more importantly as ways to understand how emerging generations think, interact, engage, and live out their calling.

The workshop starts at 2:00pm CST and goes until 3:30pm. You can follow the conversation on twitter via hashtag #APCE10x — and if you’re logged into SecondLife, there’s a wee small chance that we might be stopping by the 1PCSL Chapel around 3:00 or so, time permitting. Oh, and you can find my notes, and various links for the presentation on my wiki here.

Assholes at Princeton Seminary: Retrospective

It’s been about a year and one week since I wrote this rather infamous blog post about PhD students at Princeton Theological Seminary.  While part of me would like to bury the episode in a deep hole, another part of me (the blogger, perhaps) realizes that it was a defining experience for me, and as much a part of my “seminary education” as any class I’ve taken thus far.

So…in one year, have things changed?  That’s hard to say.  I still run into assholes on a fairly regular basis — many are still PhD students, sometimes they’re M.Div students, and as I noted in my follow up piece a year ago, sometimes I’m the asshole.  However, I do think, after a year of reflection and interaction, that quantity words like “most” or “almost all” wore a little hyperbolic.

Of course, it’s hard to accurately analyze the change, since now the post itself has influenced the situation.  While a blogger always hopes that his posts will be read, I genuinely didn’t expect that post to spread as far and wide as it did, among the seminary population.  For awhile there, I was told there was a nasty letter about my lack of sexual prowess hanging on the wall in the PhD lounge (classy, huh?).  So now whenever PhD students are really nice to me, I always wonder “Are they doing that just so I won’t blog about them?”  Of course, when I’m nice to PhD students, they probably ask themselves “Does he really think I’m an asshole, and is just being polite?”   And, of course, I’ll probably always wonder (and fret over) how much temptation the blog post causes the PhD students who routinely grade my papers (yes, that’s the way we roll here).

Every now and then, someone will still give me a knowing wink and say–“I just read your blog post about PhD students, man…right on!”  This bothers me a little.  The post was born out of genuine frustration and feelings of powerlessness and isolation that probably most first-year graduate students feel.  I don’t like being reduced to a sort of stick-it-to-the-man kind of mascot (believe it or not).  The post was nuanced, especially in the comments.  And I’ve since learned that most PhD students often feel as frustrated and powerless as I did (which is, of course, still no excuse to take it out on M.Div students).  Probably a good dose of Paulo Friere is what we all really need.

What bothers me even more than this, are the few people who were deeply offended by my post, and who have abandoned relationship with me over the course of the year.  Perhaps that’s just the sad consequence of my actions, or perhaps its my unwillingness to completely “repent” of the post and retract it (I still stand by my right as a blogger to vent my frustration and be human, aka “not nice,” from time to time).  Whichever, it bothers me that there are people who live right across the street from me who haven’t spoken to me since the incident.

I still believe passionately that many people at Princeton Seminary (from M.Div students, to PhDs to faculty and staff) take themselves WAY too seriously, and that the cut-throat spirit of competitiveness is antithetical to the mission of the institution.  A year and a half has solidified that view.  If the seminary adopted a pass/fail system for all classes, that problem would be easily solved.

But that’s not too likely, and here I am slipping into back-seat driver mode again (see how easy it is?).

In studying the Bible, one question that gets raised often is whether or not God changes over the course of the narrative (to which all the orthodox readers all too quickly shout “NO!).  Personally, I don’t have a problem with a God who changes (or evolves), but usually the answer people gravitate to runs something like this:  It’s not God who changed, but rather our perception of God.

So I don’t know whether PhD Students at Princeton Seminary have really changed, or maybe just my perception of them, but all in all it’s been a better year for all of us.  In that spirit, I raise a toast to the PhD students at Princeton Seminary:  May the year to come be prosperous and productive for you, full of the choicest books, the deepest conversations, and the highest praise from your professors.  May you get to know a few MDiv students too, as friends and equals, and not hold the transgressions of the past against them.  And finally, may your humanity to others shine forth in all you do, in the classroom, in the dining hall, and on the quad.

Of course…since I didn’t call them assholes, none of them will probably read this, damn it.

Virtual Conferences: Future or Far Fetched?

There seem to have been a lot of big, exciting, energetic Christian Conferences (especially tech-focused ones) this past fall.  And I noticed via twitter that a new acquaintance of mine, Paul Steinbrueck, has managed to attend almost all of them.  So I asked him what he thought about the growing trend in Virtual World Conferences, and whether he thought we’d be seeing any of that coming to the church world any time soon.  He blogs at OurChurch.com (which also does fantastic website design, CMS, and hosting work), and here’s an excerpt from his response:

Right now I think virtual conferences are a ways from becoming mainstream because virtual worlds are still a ways away from becoming mainstream.  So, while virtual conferences may reduce the barriers of time and money they introduce new barriers of competency and comfort with the virtual world.

But the number of people engaged in virtual worlds like Second Life continues to grow.

Twenty years ago it would have been crazy to think you could get 10,000 people to sign up for an Internet-only, live streamed Christian leadership conference, but now that most Americans have high speed Internet access and view video online on a daily basis, the Leadership Network was able to pull that off with The Nines conference.

Could it be that in 20 years (or less), the Internet will no longer be primarily a 2 dimensional experience viewing flat text, images, and media, but a 3 dimensional experience?

He also posted this really cool video of a recent conference in Second Life, where (as some of you may already know) I’ve been spending some time recently developing a Presbyterian faith community.  Here’s the video:

I think Paul’s experience and judgment in the Christian “tech industry” are exceptional, so I respect and value his input on this subject.  I also think his analysis here is spot on, too.  Here’s my response (also posted as a comment on his original post):

Paul — thanks for posting on this.  I think you’re right that virtual conferences are still a ways from becoming mainstream.  But I’d answer your final question by saying, yes, the internet will go from primarily 2d to primarily 3d in quite a bit less time than 20 years.

I think the “web designers” of today will become the “virtual world environment and event designers” of tomorrow (borrowed from Ray Kurzweil on that idea).

But I also think that the current economic downturn will help spur a growth movement in virtual conferences right now — Unfortunately businesses intent on saving money will probably lead the way here, not churches (who are generally slow adopters).  That said, Doug Estes new book SimChurch highlights the increasing number of virtual faith communities, and real world churches with “internet campuses” — so maybe the church isn’t that far behind.

But be it church conferences or business conferences, you’ve also hit on a key point in this post:  competency and comfort with virtual worlds are the biggest hurdles to adoption.  I think this is where tech-savvy organizations can work wonders.  My experience with Second Life has been that when people join and explore in isolation, they tend to get frustrated with the experience, stuck, or even bored.

But on the other hand, when people come into virtual worlds with a fixed purpose, are met in-world by other people (represented by avatars) who walk them through a quick training session…the competency and comfort barriers fade quickly.  I imagine this is exactly what Virtualis did for their event.

For a Christian conference, providing this sort of virtual world “welcome wagon” orientation would have another advantage.  In addition to overcoming the barriers mentioned above, it would be an opportunity to practice just the sort of hospitality and welcome that many of our churches suffer from a lack of.

That said, I think what we’ll most likely begin to see in the near future of Christian conferences is a hybrid arrangement — real world conferences that develop virtual world equivalents, allowing people who can’t make the trip to participate and interact with those who do.

SecondLife, New Church Development in the PCUSA, and Discerning my Calling

What follows is my application essay for a PCUSA New Church Development Discernment  Conference this October, answering the simple question “Why do you want to attend this event?”  Since it marks some major changes (or clarification) in my thinking, and tracks some things I’ve been involved with recently, I thought it might be good to post here:

Three months ago, I embarked on a project to gather together Presbyterians in the virtual reality world of Second Life, and with them form a community of people who pray together, fellowship together, support and encourage one another, and reach out to others in the name of Christ.  What initially drew me into this project was my ongoing commitment to explore the intersection between new technologies and the church, my commitment to exploring what it means to be a Presbyterian in a post-modern culture, and my desire to follow God’s universal call to evangelism in all places.  Honestly, I was also a bit surprised to find that my particular “faith tribe” (the PCUSA) was one of the only major denominations not already organized and taking advantage of the opportunities to do all of the above in a global community with over 1.3 million participants, many or most of whom are what would be considered “unchurched” in either virtual or actual reality.

Despite the somewhat bizzare and otherworldly, high-tech nature of Second Life, as I began to encounter people there (Presbyterian and otherwise), have conversations with them about God, faith, and the church, and as our community began to meet regularly for conversation and prayer, I noticed that the skills I was drawing upon most were not my “high tech” ones, nor even my sense of “cultural relevancy.”  Rather, it was my experiences in a real-world New Church Development for several years, and snippets of advice I had gleaned from various New Church Development and Evangelism conferences (that I had often scorned or considered outmoded at the time) that I now found myself straining to remember, and, when implemented, met with the greatest success.  I am beginning to learn that the shared wisdom and experiences of those who have gone before me and worked hard to plant worshipping communities — however different they may initially appear from my own context — are of great value, and that solid principles of organization and leadership often transcend age, location, and context.

There are two reasons I would like to attend this NCD Discernment event.  The first is short term:  It is the hope that by spending a few days with those who have done what I am attempting to do, I can listen attentively and glean some useful guidance about church planting, about myself, and about following God’s call into difficult places.  In this, I hope that I can bring some benefit to the virtual-reality community where I feel God is currently calling me to lead.  The second reason is a more long-term one:  While I have always felt called to evangelism, mission, and community building, I have generally expected to do this work independently, “outside” of denominational structures.  I have felt that while I may have something to offer my denomination, my denomination would likely not have much to offer me.  My experiences in the past few months have led me to question this position, and to be more open to the idea that I, and any community I might someday lead — no matter how “different” or “outside the box” — would stand to benefit greatly from the collective wisdom and experience of those who have done NCD work in the PCUSA.  Now, with ears that are more “ready to hear,” I hope that this event can help me better discern the nature of my calling in relation to my denomination, and whether NCD work in the PCUSA is where God is leading me upon my graduation from seminary.

Midway Through Hebrew and Other Midsummer, Mid-Life Stuff

It occurs to me that a general status update post (or any post for that matter) is long overdue.  When I started writing this one, I actually *was* midway through Hebrew.  Now with only two weeks left in the class, and fall quickly approaching, the title is a bit outdated, but the rest still holds true…

Flooding
After a nice, month-long, circular trip down to Texas this summer, we arrived back in Princeton to a flooded apartment and a bunch of ruined clothes, carpet, etc. I’m not a huge fan of insurance companies or insurance in general, but among these USAA (renter’s insurance this time) is definitely the best. Glad we have it.

Hebrew
I’m in the middle of an intensive summer language course, Hebrew this time. As with Greek last summer, I’ve had my share of eye-opening moments, triumphs, and frustrations — and the latter of those are largely the same sorts of issues as last summer, but (hoping I’ve learned and grown some) I’ll leave it there and not stick my foot in my blog-mouth with another long rant. Suffice it to say that I am challenged, but doing well, and looking forward to being able to translate my favorite book of the Old Testament: Jonah.

Ukulele
While in Texas this summer, I acquired a very nice ukulele, and am starting to realize what an under-appreciated instrument it is. The uke is LOADS of fun, easy to pick up quickly (although I’m sure difficult to master), sounds beautiful, and I can toss it in my backpack for transportation, too! I even got to lead worship with the uke at one of the seminary’s summer chapel services (and yes, I wore a Hawaiian shirt for the occasion).

Family
Amy and the kids enjoyed seeing family and friends on our road trip in July (I did, too), but things have been fairly chaotic since we’ve gotten home. First the kids got sick, then I got Lyme’s disease for awhile, and all this amidst the flood repairs and insurance cataloging. One saving grace has been the weekly summer cookouts we have on various days with various friends. It’s hard to believe that Grady starts kindergarten in just another month, but he’s definitely excited about it.  Abby will start pre-school two half-days a week, so after a summer of craziness, Amy will finally get some much needed break time.

Work
This fall I’ll be back in the teaching field again:  I accepted a part-time teaching English as a Second Language with the English School at Lawrence Road Presbyterian Church.  It’s only one night a week, but I’m pretty excited about being able to do two things I love again:  1) teach English, and 2) work with immigrant communities.  Also, my website business has been taking off like crazy — to the point where I now have clients backed up all the way into the month of October.  One client I’m excited about in particular is the Office of Evangelism for the PC(USA) — I’ll be working with them this fall to develop an evangelism website that promises to be very cool, and very, very different — and that’s all I can say right now 🙂

Beer
I’ve been brewing (with my brewing buddies, Josh and T.S.) and storing away a whole stream of beers this summer, in preparation for an Oktoberfest we’re planning to host at our apartment community (CRW).  We’ve brewed some Belgian Ales (one called JezebAle in honor of summer Hebrew) and some interesting German styles too, including a schwarzbier and an alt bier.  All good practice for the future Locke Brothers Microbrewery Monastery/SettlementHouse/Conference&RetreatCenter/School  someday.

Second Life
My “pet project” over the summer has been to immerse myself in the technology and culture of the virtual-reality world of Second Life.  I strongly believe that widespread use of virtual reality will be the next “phase” in the development of internet and communication technology.  So, I’ve created a Second Life avatar (in SL, I’m “Neill Loxingly”) and have been exploring, building and meeting all sorts of real people in this virtual world.  I have to say that outside of Second Life, I’ve encountered a lot of fear, misconception, and even condescension about virtual reality and Second Life in particular (Isn’t that just a “game?” Doesn’t it take away from “real” interactions?).  While these questions are somewhat legitimate, they also show a misunderstanding of the nature of social interaction and the technology.  But, I guess if it were something people generally understood and realized the importance of, I wouldn’t be doing it now, would I?

In Summation of Summer
In the summer between my first and second years at seminary, I finally “feel” like a real seminary student (Look, Gepetto! I’m a real boy!), and like the rhythms, the community, and the patterns of grad-school life are starting to become more natural for me and for my family.  Not to say that it’s easy — in many ways it’s been the hardest thing we’ve yet done, and probably the hardest parts are still to come.  But one year and one summer down has at least bred a sort of familiarity to this season of our lives, and we’re happy to be where we are, doing what we’re doing among great people and greater friends.

Now Starting: Theology On Tap

I’m starting a Theology on Tap group that will meet on my front porch every Thursday this summer at 7:00. Please come join me for beer, theology, and protest of stupid copyright laws.

What?

Yeah, I’m not really starting a Theology on Tap because I’m that attached to the concept (although it’s a good one). I’m starting a theology on tap because my friend Adam Walker Cleaveland just wrote a blog post tossing out the mere idea of starting a theology on tap group for his church, and within six hours, he received an email notification from the group that apparently holds the trademark for the term “theology on tap.” They basically told him he couldn’t use the name without paying them money. Oh, and this is a ministry, too.

WTF?!?!?!?!?!! (uh oh, has anyone trademarked “WTF” yet?)

Better yet:  WTFWJD???? (Ryan, you’d better hurry up and trademark that one.)

So, even though I actually think the name “Theology on Tap” is a little hokey and overused, I’m now going to start one, and yes, that’s EXACTLY what I’m going to call it: THEOLOGY ON TAP. Every Thursday night at 7pm, my front porch. Bring your favorite beer, and I’ll share some of mine with you. We’ll print t-shirts, flyers, and publicize the heck out of it. Oh, and if you’re not in New Jersey but still want to participate, I’d encourage you to start your own THEOLOGY ON TAP wherever you live. If thousands of us all do it together, I doubt the copyright Nazis who “own” the words (ridiculous, isn’t it?) Theology on Tap will really be able to sustain that many lawsuits. And even if they try, they’ll end up looking as stupid and foolish and selfish as when ASCAP sued the Girl Scouts of America for singing copyrighted songs around their campfires.

Sheesh. What an idiotic world we live in.

See you tonight for THEOLOGY ON TAP!!!

Judas*

From Matthew 26 & 27 (you know the story):

Then one of the twelve—the one called Judas Iscariot—went to the chief priests and asked, “What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?” So they counted out for him thirty silver coins. From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him over.

When evening came, Jesus was reclining at the table with the Twelve. And while they were eating, he said, “I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me.” They were very sad and began to say to him one after the other, “Surely not I, Lord?”

Jesus replied, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.”

Then Judas, the one who would betray him, said, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” Jesus answered, “Yes, it is you.”

Then Jesus went…to a place called Gethsemane…Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived. With him was a large crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him.” Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him.

Jesus replied, “Friend, do what you came for.”

When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the silver coins to the chief priests and the elders. “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.”

What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility.”

So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.

From a different story (one you probably didn’t hear):

Each one of you plays the hero in your own story, but chances are you’ve also been assigned the role of villain once or twice in someone else’s story, perhaps without even realizing it.  Now imagine if that story — not your story — were the only story to survive…

Jesus warned me this would happen. He said, “You shall be cursed for generations…but you will come to rule over them. You will exceed all of them, for you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.”  Jesus was a great man…but Matthew? Matthew was a liar. Well…he did get a few things right.

The bit about the 30 pieces of silver is true enough. I did go to the Pharisees. We did agree on a price. Do you really think our plan would have worked if I’d said “Jesus sent me to you because he wants to turn himself in, and he wants you to kill him.”  No.  Jesus was right.  The only language the Pharisees understand is money. And they bought our story—hook, line, and sinker.

Now the last supper…you should have seen the look on the other disciples’ faces when Jesus said “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.” Who hadn’t dipped their hands in that bowl that night? They really scrambled to get themselves off the hook, each loudly protesting his innocence.  But is that what a true friend does? Clear his own name when he’s most needed? Jesus meant it when he said “Woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.” But I wish you could have seen his eyes…his eyes looked right at me, and they said, “I’m sorry, my friend, for what they’re going to put you through in my name.”

He called me friend one last time after that. It was in the Garden, when I brought the chief priests and the elders to arrest him. The sign was pre-arranged, but not between the Pharisees and me. If all that was needed was an identifying sign, I could have just said, “The one I slap is the man; arrest him.”  No.  A kiss is how you say goodbye to someone you love. It was our sign, our plan.  But Jesus must have seen in my eyes the doubt and uncertainty.  Could I go through with it?  What kind of friend… Even in obedience… Calmly — Reassuringly — Compassionately — Jesus looked at me one last time and said, “Do what you came for…friend.”

Of course I gave the money back to the Pharisees. What need had I, or Jesus ever had for money? I wasn’t seized with remorse, though, and I didn’t hang myself. Didn’t I tell you Matthew was a liar? The disciples never understood Jesus while he was alive. Why would any reasonable person assume that would suddenly change after he died? It didn’t.

Jesus was my friend, and he sacrificed his life for me. Was it too much to ask that I sacrifice my name, my story for him?

____________________________

*Written for my Intro to Speech class.  The assignment was to retell a biblical story in your own words…or someone else’s.