Life: Better Connected

August 19, 2018
Reverend Meghan K. Gage-Finn

As Sarah introduced last week, in these first Gathered at Five services, we are hoping to explore together passages you may have heard before, but may not have a great grasp on, passages that might be familiar but we can be helped to hear them together in a new way. This section from the letter to the Ephesians comes as the end of the letter is approaching, and right before the passage about wives submitting to their husbands- not a text you will hear preached at Westminster and not one included in the lectionary! The author of this letter, and for a variety of reasons it is not thought to be attributed to Paul, starts by telling listeners in these verses to be careful to live wisely, to take advantage of every opportunity because these are evil times.

Did you really need to come to church to know that these are evil times? Or to be reminded that evil has been in the context of the lives of God’s people for so long?

Now, evil is a tough word, one we may be inclined to toss around at times casually, but it really means “the absence of good.” Evil is insidious, nefarious, corrupt, heinous, destructive. I find it challenging as a Christian, some may even call me a “professional Christian,” to reconcile with the evil in the world, now and in our history as a people. How do we understand and come to terms with the unfathomable ways God’s people can hurt one another? How do we understand a God, and our life together as community, where there is evil in the world, and does that mean we understand there to be an absence of good?

The news coming from the Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania, a grand jury report naming 300 abusive priests over 70 years, is a systematic perpetuation of evil, what has been called a “playbook for covering up the truth.” Earlier this summer NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof called the policy of separating children from their parents and families at the border “evil.” Hitler has been referred to as “evil incarnate,” but if Jesus is love incarnate, God’s love in bodily, fleshly form for us, then was this evil to be embodied in another person?

I was on call this past week, each week one of the pastors is designated as available to act as “first responder” to needs and concerns that arise, and later in the week a woman came in, noticing our open door, and wanted to speak to and pray with a pastor. We went into the prayer room, just outside the sanctuary, and she told me of her recent surgery for cancer and that she was to start chemotherapy in a week. She talked of the deaths of her two of sisters to cancer, and her son in a car accident a year ago. She is searching for more secure housing, in a place where drugs aren’t so rampant and where the temptations won’t be so strong for her, a recovering addict, to start using again. She spoke of the presence of the Devil in her world and that he is lurking around every corner to pull her back in. She named the evil in her life and sees the possibility of Satan being powerful than she.

I sat and listened, trying to process the long litany of hardships she has experienced, but also wondering about this prayer she was expecting me to offer. Had she come into this community hoping I would rebuke evil and its power in the world, that I would pray for Satan to what- leave her alone? How could I pray in a way that was both authentic to her tradition and perspective on God, and my own?

This woman was describing for me her context and her community. While she does have a support system to some degree, her world is more ravaged by temptations and hardship. She is trying to be careful to live her life wisely, not foolishly, to take advantage of every opportunity, in community.

What was the community of Ephesus like?

The context of the letter to the Ephesians is interesting- there is no single crisis or conflict specified or identified, to which the author is responding or addressing. Scholars have considered that this might be a letter intended for many churches.  Our verses for today come from within three chapters of the letter which focus on the role of mission of the church and life within it. The people of Ephesus who receive this message are in the midst of a radical transformation of their personal and social identity because of hearing and understanding the gospel. Their new identity is in formation. It is in coming together as the Body of Christ that they are being re-socialized into God’s purpose and family.

What would it look like to allow ourselves to be resocialized into God’s purpose and family?

Part of what Sarah and I, and the other leaders who have helped to shape Gathered at Five, hope is that we find new identity, as individuals and as church, in formation, in the act of gathering. This idea from Ephesians to take advantage of every opportunity is an invitation, a commandment, to be together in community.

I was driving down France Avenue the other evening to head to our end-of-summer cookout for our college students, just south of 62, near Southdale. I drove past a big, new, lit-up Bank of America branch with a huge banner displayed in the window telling me about Erica, someone I can text, call, or type whenever I need help. Now presumably Erica (I don’t know Erica’s preferred gender identification) is named as such because Erica is imbedded in the name of the corporation.

Erica is ready and here to help, I’m told, and actually, Bank of America’s slogan is Life: Better Connected. As I am not a Bank of America customer, I was curious, and the website told me that Erica can make my life better connected by helping me with my everyday banking needs. Erica will single-handedly make my financial life easier. If I want to talk to Erica on my phone, I will know Erica is listening because the icon will start pulsing. For now, Erica is only available in English, but I am told Erica is expected to learn Spanish soon. When I do talk to Erica, our conversations will be recorded so that Erica can continue to serve me better.

Life: Better Connected

This all got me thinking about the work of Sherry Turkle, MIT professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology. She has written and spoken widely on how we understand privacy and community, intimacy and solitude. She talks in her book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, that technology has become the “architect of our intimacies.” She says, “technology promises to let us do anything from anywhere with anyone. But it also drains us as we try to do everything from everywhere.” She says, “relentless connection leads to a new solitude.”People are lonely, technology is seductive and we think it helps us lead better lives in the real world and it denies us the rewards of solitude. We text at funerals and at parties, removing ourselves from our grief and our reverie, she says. We can’t get enough of each other, but only at a distance.

On our recent summer family road trip, on our last day of driving we passed through an Iowa town home to a small liberal arts college and we stopped at one of the local eateries for lunch. As we were settling up our bill I asked the wait staff person if they were looking forward to having the students return to campus soon. This person gave me a somewhat non-committal, ambivalent shrug. She said they love the energy of having the campus so close, but the students come in in big packs and stay for long hours and they don’t necessarily leave a lot of space for other customers. She said the trick they’ve found is that they turn off the Wi-Fi at certain times of the day and week. I asked, “Oh, the students come to study here for long periods of time, and without the internet they are less inclined?”  She said, “No, they don’t come to study as much as to just hang out together.” Apparently, without Wi-Fi, they can’t, or won’t, hang out together.

All of us, college students, and those well beyond that stage of life, are not filling ourselves with the Spirit, but with the 24-hour news cycle, pictures on Instagram of what other people are eating, text conversation made up entirely of Emojis, instead of being together in authentic community. There are certainly many benefits to technology and social media, that can’t be denied, but Ephesians gives us clear instruction- speak to each other!

And how do we do that specifically, according to Ephesians? We speak to each other by singing together, by making music in our hearts- together. Scientists have found that when choristers sing together, their heartbeats synchronize, which brings about a calming effect that is as beneficial to our health as yoga!

Researchers have also found that singing can boost our immune system, reduce stress levels and help patients with chronic pain. One joint study by Harvard and Yale Universities about 10 years ago even found that choral singing in a Connecticut town had increased residents’ life expectancy!  But not just that, and here is where the power of community comes in, a psychologist at McGill University found that feelings of belonging were elevated through communal singing.

This research suggests that oxytocin is released in our brains when we sing with others, and this chemical is involved with social bonding and gives rise to feelings of togetherness and friendship.

If singing is proven to lower aggression, improve our moods, build solidarity and cooperation, moving us together toward a shared goal- couldn’t we use a bit more of that in these evil times?[1]

Couldn’t we all stand to have life better connected?

Scholar Brian Peterson notes that this is what wisdom looks like, and what the Spirit’s filling brings: a life composed in songs, in praise (and lament), a melody joined together across cultures and years. It is in such songs that we declare together “the will of the Lord” for all the world.[2] In hymns and songs, we express our struggles and joys, our faith and our doubt; we train one another to give voice to the life and faith of the church.

Verse 20 in our passage is worth going back to for a minute. In many translations, it is presented as “giving thanks for everything,” but another way to translate the verse is “giving thanks for each other.” To be filled with the Spirit does not lead to private projects or mystical experiences, but to the common work of the community’s worship and building up. The wise life in Christ is one that is embraced within a context of worship, and one which itself becomes an act of worship in thanks to God.[3]

This woman I met with last week, while we held hands and I asked God to grant her courage and wisdom, peace and comfort the way ahead, she listened and rocked, and sang her own prayer of hope and thanksgiving. She hummed and swayed her song of lament and praise throughout the prayer.

While I couldn’t “pray the Devil away,” somehow in our hearts we made music to the Lord and gave thanks to God, speaking to each other, and finding ourselves filled in that space with the Holy Spirit.

We found some way to respond to evil with praise, pushing back against the prevalence of being alone together by gathering together to give thanks to God for each other.

Amen.

[1] Research on benefits of singing: http://www.chicagotribune.com/suburbs/advertising/todayshealthywoman/ct-ss-thw-health-benefits-of-singing-a-tune-20180314dto-story.html, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/health/10168914/All-together-now-singing-is-good-for-your-body-and-soul.html, https://www.apa.org/monitor/2013/11/music.aspx

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2548

[3] Ibid.

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