Thursday, February 14, 2013

Has Facebook Peaked?

Has Facebook peaked? Is it settling into a particular social media niche? Today's Daily Stat from the Harvard Business Review would seem to indicate that the answer to both questions is, "Yes":

FEBRUARY 14, 2013
Number of Users Spending Less Time on Facebook Outweighs Number Spending More Time

34% of Facebook users say they spend less time on the site now than last year, while just 13% say they spend more time on it, according to a Pew survey. Additionally, 28% say the site is less important to them now than a year ago, compared with 12% who say it's more important. Decreases in engagement with the site seem to be most prevalent among the young: 42% of users ages 18-29 report spending less time now on the site.

Source: Coming and Going on Facebook

Personally, I feel that Facebook is good for some things, like communicating with family, friends, and groups. But as a media for receiving or transmitting information or opinions, Twitter is better.

My guess as to why that's so has been that Facebook is more, pardon the unintended pun, "in your face," whereas the 140-character limit of a tweet on Twitter limits the irritation one might derive from an unpleasant political post, coarse comments, or other irritating posts, pictures, and forwards.

Each week on the PBS Newshour, Lauren Ashburn and Howard Kurtz converse on the cultural impact of digital media. I was struck by several of their comments in the segment two days ago, which seemed to dovetail with my thoughts:
CHRISTINA BELLANTONI [the anchor conducting the segment]...So we're finding actually that some people seem to be a little overloaded on Facebook, right? You have some data...
LAUREN ASHBURN: And they're taking a vacation from Facebook; 61 percent in the new Pew study, as you can see here, are taking a break from Facebook.
HOWARD KURTZ: Of several weeks or more -- a vacation, virtually.
And there's another 20 percent who were on Facebook, not anymore. And the question is, Lauren, why are they bailing out?
LAUREN ASHBURN: Why are they bailing out?
I mean, I think we could just have a discussion around this table about why we would want to bail out of social media. But I actually posted this on my Facebook page. And I think you have it on yours as well, that the reason, in addition to the ones that the study has, are the fact that you don't like what people are saying politically.
We saw that a lot during the campaign season, that it is affecting your family life, that you are obsessed. And you are spending too much time on social media and Facebook while your 3-year-old child is drawing on your carpet.
HOWARD KURTZ: Facebook fatigue could be a factor, but I also just think that some people are just bored with it. Facebook has been around now.
It's got a billion users worldwide. I don't think it has quite the buzz factor that it used to. So, some people may say, well, I can go on my mobile gadget and do other things, play other games, go on other social networks. Facebook has competition now.
LAUREN ASHBURN: And a lot of people say that Twitter, too, Christina, has almost usurped the place of Facebook in terms of getting information.
I think Facebook is now much more family-oriented and that your network is really your network of friends. But Twitter is where, if you're a journalist, or anyone else ...
HOWARD KURTZ: Public person or a politician.
LAUREN ASHBURN: A public person -- you can get -- disseminate information.
CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: In short little bursts there.
The digital world moves at a lightning pace. We're all still figuring things out. I still use Facebook. But I'm now on Twitter much more than Facebook. It's my social media of choice. Others seem to be drawing the same conclusion or opting out of social media altogether.

Ash Wednesday: Lenten Disciplines for Life

[This was shared during the Ash Wednesday worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio on February 13. The Bible lesson was Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21.]

The sermon for tonight didn’t start out as a sermon.

It was going to be my presentation for this month’s women’s group. When the women’s group got snowed out, I posted it on my blog. Some of you have read it.

But it says what I want to share with you on this Ash Wednesday, as we begin the often misunderstood and misused season of Lent.

But, even if this is a re-run for you, you may notice things you didn’t catch when you read it on the blog.

Plus, like a DVD of a movie or TV show, there are a few added special features. In any case, I hope you find it helpful.

Many people use Lent to align themselves with Christ. They do this through the adoption of what are called spiritual disciplines. Lenten disciplines can be good, strengthening faith and helping us to love God and love others more faithfully.

But like many good things, we human beings have a way of messing up the whole idea of Lenten disciplines.

"I'm going to give up chocolate," some will announce.

"I'm not drinking beer during Lent," others might say.

"I've decided to give up cussing until Easter," they might say.

But, here's the deal: If something is getting in the way of our being Christians, isn't it also worth asking God to help us get rid of it, not just during Lent, but through our whole lives? Why is something bad during Lent, but not bad the rest of the year?

And, if something we add to our lives as our Lenten discipline helps us grow closer to Christ and to live in a more Christ-like way during Lent, can't it do the same things all year long?

If, this Lenten season, you're giving up chocolate just to lose weight, or giving up beer to please a spouse, or giving up cussing to make yourself more acceptable to some people, your "giving up" is meaningless from God's perspective.

Under such circumstances, you're not undertaking these disciplines to honor God, but as part of a self-improvement kick!

Self improvement is fine. But we shouldn’t claim anything we do just for self-improvement as a spiritual discipline, as something we’re doing for God.

Otherwise, we risk being the kinds of people Jesus condemns in tonight’s Gospel lesson:
  • People who practice piety just to be seen as pious, religious people; 
  • People who give to charity to be seen by others as generous;
  • People who pray so that others will think they’re faithful; 
  • People who fast in order to get kudos for others for being heroically self-sacrificing.
But if your intent is to grow closer to Christ and more like Christ through your discipline, it can be a very good thing.

Our Ash Wednesday liturgy mentions four disciplines most closely associated with Lent. These four disciplines might be ones you'll want to consider adopting this year.

But don’t adopt  them with the attitude that, "I'll give them up after Lent." Use Lent as a time to integrate these disciplines into your life, for keeps.

The first Lenten discipline the liturgy mentions is repentance.

Repentance gets a bad rap. It's often seen as a humiliating exercise in which we make ourselves miserable for our sin.

Confession and sorrow for sin are parts of authentic repentance, but the main words used in the Bible for repent tell a fuller story. Simply put, repentance is changing the direction of our lives, changing our minds to think more like God. We refuse to walk away from Christ and instead, turn around to walk toward Him and the way of life He has pioneered for us. [See Hebrews 2:10-13 and Hebrews 12:1-2.]

Knowing that Christ has died to save us from paying the price for our own sins, we ask God for the power to live a life in which the will of God is our highest priority.

Repentance can be a painful thing because it means owning up to our sins, imperfections, and need of God.

But repentance is also a joyful thing because through it, God gives us forgiveness, fresh starts, and the power of the Holy Spirit to help us live the life God has made for all who believe in Jesus.

Christians who choose repentance for their Lenten discipline would do well to adopt the prayer of King David, found in Psalm 139:23-24: “Search me, O God...See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” When we repent, we ask God to show us our errors and change the course our lives are taking, steering us toward Christ and new life!

A second discipline mentioned in our Ash Wednesday liturgy is fasting. Fasting can mean simply doing away with things that get in the way of our following Christ or living life God's way. It may also mean doing without some things that aren’t bad in themselves--things like food, hours on the computer or watching TV, going to sporting events, window shopping at the mall--that keep us from prayer, worship, reading Scripture, attending to our primary relationships, or serving others.

I always suggest replacing the thing from which a person fasts with a positive, God-honoring activity. When we vacate a bad habit, it leaves a hole in our lives and schedules. It’s too tempting to indulge the behavior from which you’re fasting if you don’t have something good to take its place. If you've decided, for example, to give up watching television one night a week, you'll be able to follow through on your discipline and imbue it with some meaning beyond being a forty-day stunt of your will, if you use your usual TV time volunteering at a food bank.

A third discipline mentioned each Ash Wednesday is prayer. Prayer is conversation with God. Of course, believers should, as the Bible teaches, "pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17). But focused times of prayer, at set times each day, become our special appointments with God, deepening our faith, giving our lives both peace and direction.

One point about these special prayer times I would make is to be certain that you always begin your prayers by reading a chapter from the Bible or a devotion based on a passage of Scripture. Since prayer is conversation with God, it's good to let God get in the first word. Otherwise, our prayers can devolve into monologues about our wants and our feelings.

Psalm 37:4 gives us the priority our prayers should reflect: “Take delight in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.” Put God first. When you do that, your desires will change. God’s priorities will become your priorities. What you pray for will change. God and you will be moving in the same direction. And you’ll find God empowering you to do things outside of your comfort zone.

My buddy Steve Sjogren has a new book out called, Heaven’s Lessons. There, Steve tells about his going to a Best Buy one day, looking for an accessory for his iPhone. He saw a sales clerk who, Steve says, didn’t look different from anybody else there.

But some time before this shopping trip, Steve had been praying that God would help him to do whatever God wanted him to do. Steve assumed that God would help him to do things he was comfortable doing.

As he stood in the Best Buy though, he sensed God telling him, “If you approach that salesman and offer to pray for him, I’ll give you one of my prayers to pray.” That seemed crazy to Steve, walking up to a stranger and offering to pray with him! But then he thought he was probably never going to see this guy again and if things got weird, he could just skip going to Best Buy and shop online for a few months.

Steve walked over to the guy and said, “You obviously don’t know me, and I don’t know you, but sometimes I pray for people, and good things happen. I feel like I’m supposed to pray for you for ten seconds. Would that be all right?”

The guy looked around, evidently to see if the coast was clear, and told Steve, “Yeah, go for it.” Steve closed his eyes and touched the guy’s arm. As he did, he got a clear mental picture of this Best Buy employee sitting in a medical school classroom, wearing a white smock, his initials embroidered on the pocket. Steve prayed, “Lord, on his first day of medical school, show him that he didn’t get there by his own hard work, but by the favor you gave him as his grandmother prayed for him.”

The prayer was over. But when Steve looked up at this guy, “his eyes were wide open. His jaw had dropped. His nose was running, and tears dripped down his cheeks.” “How did you know about me trying to get into medical school?” he asked. “Who are you?” Steve explained, “I’m just a guy who sometimes prays for people.” This young man later became a Christian, a member of Steve’s church, and a doctor.

We aren’t all going to be used by God in the exact same ways God uses Steve when he prays. But when we pray God’s way, delighting in the Lord, putting ourselves at the disposal of God for His purposes and not our own, God will give us the desires of our hearts. And what could anyone desire more than to be a partner with God in fulfilling His plans for the world?

A fourth Lenten discipline is doing works of love. Jesus says that whenever we have cared for those the world regards as "the least of these,” we actually serve Him (Matthew 25:31-46).

There is no place in the world that can’t be made better by the love of God. And there’s no end to what God will empower us to do to pass along the love God gives through Jesus Christ.

One work of love we may undertake is reaching out to a family member who has been ostracized from the family.

Another might be participating in a kindness outreach.

Another, picking up groceries for a homebound neighbor.

It might be doing something many of you often do, sending a card to a shut-in.

Whatever the work of love you do, if it's done in the Name of Jesus Christ, you'll find that what started out as something you thought you were doing to benefit others will, miraculously, benefit you, freeing your from your slavery to yourself, turning you out toward the wider world. You will feel and you will be more alive for it.

Jesus says, "Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for My sake will find it" (Matthew 10:39).

Now, if in what I’ve said (or ever said) I've come across as some "expert" either on Lenten disciplines or on being a Christian, let me close by saying that I am a sinner in daily need of Christ's forgiveness and help to live as the human being I was created by God to be.

I am, like you, a disciple. That word disciple translates the Greek New Testament word, mathetes, and it means student. I’m a student learning what it means to follow Jesus.

And if you’re like me, a sinner learning to follow Jesus, you might consider adopting one of these four Lenten disciplines--repentance, fasting, prayer, works of love--this year.

Your Lenten discipline could do a lot more than reshape your waistline; it could reshape your soul.

It could change your life not just your Lent, but for eternity. Amen

Monday, February 11, 2013

Tyler Perry's Thoughts on Anniversary of Whitney Houston's Death

Here. Tyler Perry ends his remembrances of Whitney Houston with a call for prayer:
We can keep her daughter and her family lifted up in prayer. We can also pray for other people in this business, especially these young people who come in so bright eyed and eager, only to have it tear at their very souls.

I thank God I didn’t become successful until I was older. The younger you are when you start in this business, the more at risk you are.  Speaking of that, we can also pray for the children of these people. If you only knew what people in this business have to endure to sit in their seat. I’m not asking you to feel sorry for anyone. I’m simply asking you to pray for us all.
Makes sense to me. Can you imagine what might happen in our culture if not-famous Christians started regularly praying for all those people, famous and not famous, who have a part in the creation and production of movies, TV shows, video games, and books?

I'm not even advocating prayer requests to God for what we think these talented people should be producing.

Instead, I mean praying that God will give them a sense of His presence and love for them each day and that they would be protected from the trails of sycophants who want pieces of them or to sell them self-destruction, one-kilo, one-needle track, one bottle at a time.

Pray for the famous and the families of the famous that they may be protected from the dangers and the ills of fame.

Pray for those who help entertain us and inform us, that God will guide them and help them experience God's goodness, Lordship, and love every single day.

I'll pray that prayer, Mr. Perry! And thank you for your fine post.

[By the way, in 2005, I wrote a piece regarding the effects of fame on the famous here. Also see here.]

Do Headlines Like This Make You Laugh?

"Before He Died, Steve Jobs Said He Wanted Apple to Make a Car"

Did it really need to be expressed in that way? Does anybody think that Jobs said he wanted an Apple car after he died?

By the way, I love Apple products. So, I'm not dissing Jobs. Headlines like this just crack me up.

Even Bank Robbers Are Going High Tech

They're eschewing the time-honored tradition of sticking up banks in person and, instead, going online.

Of course, there are some 70 year olds who still rob banks the old fashioned way.

FEBRUARY 11, 2013
Criminals Give Up on Robbing Banks and Head for the Internet

The FBI is leaving more bank-robbery investigations to local police now that bank holdups in the U.S. are on the decline, says the Wall Street Journal. Bank robbers stole $29.5 million, or $7,600 per heist, in 2012, down from $107 million, or $12,400 per crime, in 1997. Would-be robbers are responding to tighter security in banks, tougher sentences for offenders, and the allure of easy money in internet crime: The American Bankers Association estimates criminals netted $1.8 billion in check and debit-card fraud in 2010.

Source: Crime That No Longer Pays

Sunday, February 10, 2013

What About Good Works? (Part 6, The Augsburg Confession)

[This was shared during worship this morning with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, and our guests.]

This morning as we continue to explore what it means to be a Lutheran Christian, we need to begin by getting a clear understanding of the meanings of two different ways of living.

The first way of living is religion. Our English word for religion comes to us from the French language and it has the idea of being tied to, or fastened to a deity for whom one has fear or dread, but not necessarily love.

In religion, people feel tied down or tethered by a god that expects them to follow orders like submissive slaves. When a person is part of a religion, all of life is a grim obligation. Their speech is full of phrases like, “I have to...” “I should...” “I must...” They may say similar things to others, as in, "You have to..." Or, "You should..." And, "You must..."

When a people follow a religion, they're never certain if they’re good enough to warrant the favor of their god.

And in religion, almost anything can be one’s god: a man, a woman, a family, a career, the approval of others, or some strange, fictionalized version of God. That’s religion.

But there’s another way of life. It’s the life of faith in Jesus Christ.

When you have faith in Christ, you know that when you repent and turn to Jesus Christ as the only place where hope and life can be found, God accepts you, as the old hymn puts it, “just as I am, without one plea, but that Christ’s blood was shed for me...”

You know that you are made right with God not by the things you do--”not by works, lest any one should boast,” as the New Testament book of Ephesians puts it--but only because of what Jesus Christ did for you when He died on a cross and rose from the dead and because you believe in only Him.

Faith means that you trust Christ with your life. You know that there is nothing you can do, nothing you could do, or nothing you ever will do to earn His approval.

But just as a drowning person, otherwise sure to be overcome by the wind and the waves, grabs hold of the outstretched hand of a rescuer, you and I are saved simply by taking the hand of our Savior Jesus by faith.

Religion is the natural impulse of human beings. Terrified of their god though the adherents of religions may be, religion fits with the original sin with which we are born. Original sin means that we’re born without any ability to trust in God or anything else.

When people believe in a religion, they don’t trust in God. They trust in themselves. They trust in their ability to be good enough to squeak into heaven.

And when they get into scrapes, they try to make deals with God. They try to negotiate with God as though He were a retailer in a marketplace: “If you’ll do this for me, God, I’ll do that for you.”

Faith knows that there’s nothing we could give God, no good work that we could perform, that God needs or that could cleanse our souls sufficiently of sin to make us worthy of God’s help, or love, or favor, or of being declared innocent, justified, right with God.

As God’s Word puts it, “by grace [we] have been saved, and this is not [our] own doing; it is the gift of God--not the result of works, so that no one may boast...”

Faith is the supernatural gift God grants to those who let the God revealed to the world in Jesus Christ love them.

Religion thinks that we can be self-sufficient.

Faith in Christ knows better than that.

Faith knows too that being right with God, with ourselves, and with others depends only on Christ and on what Christ has done for us.

Now this is radical stuff. It’s not the way the world thinks. It’s surely not the way the Roman Catholic Church in 16th-century Europe, where the Lutheran movement began, thought.

The official church theologians of that time accused Martin Luther, Philipp Melanchthon, and the other evangelical reformers of doing away with good works.

People still accuse Lutherans of this. “You Lutherans think that as long as you believe in Jesus, you don’t have to live like a Christian,” they say.

No doubt there are Lutherans who are great hypocrites, sinners who forget that God loves the sinner while hating our sin; who forget that the Ten Commandments are still in force; who forget that repentance, turning away from and renouncing our sin, is part of faith in Christ.

But we believe God’s Word when it tells us that we sinners are saved not by our works, but by what Christ has done for us and by our faith in Christ.

Our good works flow from our faith in Christ, sometimes without our even realizing it and never to be noticed or to gain brownie points with God.

We believe in good works; we just don’t believe they say anything about us. Instead, they say everything about the God Who saved us.

We know, in the words of Ephesians 2:10 that “we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” Every truly good work, every deed performed by a believer in Jesus that lets others see the glory and goodness of God, comes not from us, but from Christ, Who created that good work and empowered us to do it centuries before we were even born.

You all know that I like to thank people. I like to let people know I appreciate them. But I got a lesson in Lutheran Christianity 101 from a woman of one of the congregations I served before coming to Saint Matthew. She had undertaken some ministry in our church and I said, “Thank you.” She looked at me with a smile telling me that while she loved me, she was about to school me in God’s truth. “Pastor Mark,” she told me, “I didn’t do it for you. I did it for my Lord.”

Good works spring from gratitude for grace undeserved. They are done with no thought of self, but only of the One Who sets us free from sin and death.

Turn please to John 15:5. These are words Jesus spoke to His disciples in the upper room just before He was arrested, tried, and killed on the cross. Here, Jesus speaks of the importance of abiding in Him, staying connected to Him. But don’t be confused. Connection to Jesus isn’t the same thing as religion’s restricted tethering. To abide in Jesus is to enjoy a connection that brings us life and the freedom to be who God made us to be. Jesus says: “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me, you can do nothing.”

To “bear much fruit” means to do the works of God--to love God, to love neighbor, to tell others about Christ, to engage in acts of service and mercy. And Jesus says that we cannot do these things--these good works--unless He is working in us, living in us, powering us. The only ones who can do the works of Jesus are the ones in whom Jesus has taken up residence. Without Jesus at the center of our lives, we can do nothing. No matter how the world may applaud what nice people we are, our works will mean nothing. But when Christ lives in us, when we know that we have been saved by Him, God will do good, loving works through us that the world may not notice, but that heaven cheers.

This is what Article VI of The Augsburg Confession, one of the foundational expressions of the Lutheran understanding of Biblical Christianity, affirms. It says, in part:
Our [Lutheran] churches teach that this faith is bound to bring forth good fruit...It is necessary to do good works commanded by God..., because of God’s will. We should not rely on those works to merit justification before God. The forgiveness of sins and justification is received through faith. The voice of Christ testifies, ‘So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty...” [Luke 17:10]
Good works are central to anyone with faith in Jesus Christ. Unlike all the religions of the world, faith in Christ views good works as expressions of our thanks to God for the new life we have through Christ.

When people mired in religion do good deeds, the deeds are dirtied by their motives. It’s as if they’re saying, “Look at me. Look at how I serve God. Look at what a good person I am. Look at how much I sacrifice for others.”

When we first think to express our thankfulness to Christ by doing good deeds in His Name, it may require us to think about them and we may always think about them to some extent. After all, Christ may forgive our original sin, but it won’t die until we have died and risen again in the image of Christ. But, the person who wants to do the deeds Christ is a little like the person who sets out to learn to shoot a basketball, or pitch a baseball, or dance a step, or play an instrument. After a time, the shooting, pitching, dancing, or playing becomes part of who the person is. And here's the thing: The closer Christians grow to Christ, the more their good deeds are done without thought of self or even of the deed.

As you and I draw closer to the cleansing, enlightening flame of Jesus, the more our lives are set on fire by His love, the more the way we live is changed.

The apostle John says this in 1 John 4:9-10: “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent His only Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent His son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love...” 

The greatest deed ever done for you happened when Jesus gave His life for you.

You can never repay Him for that gift. But you can thank Him.

Ask God to help you love others the way He loves you and He will give you a lifetime of good deeds He designed for you alone to do.

Live a life of good works not because religion says you must, but because faith in Christ says you can.

You’re allowed to do them.

You’re empowered to live a life of faith active in love.

Christ has set you free to truly live.

So, live! Amen