Feature: Web ministry with wisdom and wit

By UWE SIEMON-NETTO, UPI Religion Correspondent  |  Aug. 2, 2002 at 4:56 PM
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WASHINGTON, Aug. 2 (UPI) -- The Rev. Richard Boger of High Point, N.C., is in charge of two congregations that couldn't be more different. On the one hand, he is pastor of St. Michael's Lutheran Church, where on an average Sunday no more than 25 faithful attend his service, which sometimes prompts the bearded cleric to walk, fully vested, along a highway bearing a poster that reads, "This Sunday in Person: Jesus Christ. Holy Communion, 11 A.M."

On the other hand, pastor Boger admonishes, advises and regales a virtual congregation whose members live on all continents. He is the founder and owner of St. Thomas Net Ministry -- arguably the most entertaining and theologically sound religious Web site in the world.

You might wonder why countless jokes such as this one should appear on your screen when you type "www.stnm.org" into your address line:

"Sven and Ole were working for the city of Minneapolis. Sven would dig holes. Ole would come along and fill them up again.

"'What on earth are you doing?' asked a perplexed bystander.

"'I suppose it does look funny,' replied Sven, 'but Lars, the guy who plants the trees, is sick today.'"

That's Lutheran humor.

More precisely, it is the self-deprecating humor of Minnesota Scandinavians -- plus those who still live in the old country.

"Readers from as far away as Norway supply me with Sven & Ole jokes," Boger told United Press International Friday.

Some say his Web site contains the world's largest collection of these jokes, mostly tasteful ones as befits a one-man devotional enterprise.

But this is of course only one side of Boger's Web activity -- the lighter one. It is balanced by a prayer list, meditations and -- perhaps most impressive of all -- an "Ask Uncle Marty" section full of sound theological information and pastoral counsel.

Like all serious-minded cyber pastors, Boger is quick to point out that his service could never take the place of the worshiping community. "There is no way that a priest can administer the sacrament via the Internet," said the 52-year old pastor, who is part of the "evangelical catholic" -- or high church -- wing of Lutheranism.

But of course he does give pastoral care to people who may be too embarrassed to approach their own minister with their concerns. Take one of the great struggles of contemporary Christians -- the struggles with their addiction to Web pornography.

Wrenching letters about this arrive in "Uncly Marty's" mailbox; Boger named it after Martin Luther.

Boger's advice is at the same time compassionate and practical. He reminds the writer, "God has forgiven your sin in Christ but you must continually do battle against it"

The he goes on, "Pornographic Web sites are the number one source of computer viruses. When you visit a Web site you leave a trail for others to know where you have been. This could have job, career and legal ramifications down the line.

"Meeting someone in a chat room could be extremely dangerous. You could be murdered, raped or contract AIDS."

He directs the reader to support groups for pornography addicts and ends, "Continue to pray for guidance. May God give you the strength to resist."

Apart from giving pastoral advice, "Uncle Marty" does use the Internet for something Lutherans have always believed they did best -- biblical theology.

"What happens when we die?" he is asked. "What we know for sure is that after death there will be at some point -- either immediately or in the future -- a bodily resurrection. The confusion may well be due to the fact that heaven is outside the space-time continuum of the known universe."

Will there be purgatory? "For Lutherans the purging (of man's sinful nature) occurs not in purgatory but in the process of dying itself. That which is sin in us truly dies, that which has dwelt in Christ truly lives."

With sensible and informed arguments, Boger distances himself from both fundamentalists and liberals when the tricky question is raised whether Scripture is inerrant.

"The Bible is the inspired Word of God," he argues, "It was written by men and women who were inspired by the Holy Spirit. The Bible is true, indeed our only source of ultimate truth. But is it inerrant?"

"I cannot deny that Scripture was transmitted through human vessels that were not in themselves infallible," he concludes, "I cannot deny that there are some cultural and social assumptions in Scripture that are foreign to us.

"I do not expect Scripture to know everything modern science has discovered, but in matters of morals and faith I accept its witness as true."

"Uncle Marty" does not make concessions to the spirit of the time, though. "It seems strange to me that if Christ was truly human, nothing is said about the human sexuality of Christ. Any ideas?" he is asked.

"Society (at the time the New Testament was written) was not as obsessed with sex as we are today," he retorts, "I'm not saying sexual temptation didn't exist; it's just that the gospel writers saw no reason to single out this particular kind of temptation for comment."

Fair enough but rarely said in times of ever-shifting "truths."

For Boger, this ministry of formulating good theological and pastoral arguments and disseminating them via the Internet is a blessing of a difficult period in his life.

A few years ago, his father fell very ill, and Boger had to take leave from his previous congregation to take care of him. It was then that Boger applied his pastoral skills to the invisible Internet community out there.

"I spent at least five hours every day in front of the computer," he remembers. The result confirmed that times of tribulation produce not only tears of suffering but also tears of laughter, although the laughing matter may occasionally seem a trifle sinister.

"Minnesota's worst air disaster occurred earlier today when a two-seater plane crashed into a Norwegian cemetery here," one of the darker Sven and Ole joke commences. "Ole and Sven, working as search and rescue workers, have recovered 826 bodies so far, and expect that number to climb as the digging continues into the night."

Or, more contemporary:

"In an apparent copycat terrorist act, Sven and Ole Binladenstrom have hijacked a Goodyear blimp. So far, they have bounced off five buildings."

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