I suspect that many or most of us here this morning have never heard of PostSecret.
PostSecret had its beginning in 2005 and was created by a man by the name of Frank Warren. Back in January of 2005, Frank Warren created this project by sending 3,000 self-addressed stamped postcards to people – and he asked those people to write a secret on the postcard, anonymously, and mail it back to him. Also, the idea was that the person would decorate the blank postcard in a self-expressive way or in a way that related to the theme of their secret. So Frank Warren sent out these hundreds of postcards, and then he starts getting them back – hundreds of anonymous secrets shared on personally crafted postcards.
Not too long after he started receiving the postcards from people, Warren also established a website on which he would put up the postcard images and their secrets. From there the whole thing snowballed. Every Sunday, for almost 6 years now, Frank Warren has put up 10 or 20 new postcards with their secrets. The rules he lays out are simple: You can share any secret as long as it is true, and as long as you have never shared it with anyone before. You’re supposed to keep it simple – only one confession per postcard.
Warren calls it a mail art project because – simply because the art is sent through the mail to him. Let me give you a little sample of the postcards, and of the secrets they contain.
The secrets range from kind of the humerous, like this one…
To the semi-inspirational, like this one…
To the very serious and sad, like this one…
And one that is more like a confession…
Now for many of us, this whole PostSecret phenomenon might be really new – we’ve never heard of it. But just to give you an idea of how popular it has become – since the PostSecret website was started, it has had almost 470,000,000 visits. Warren has also now published something like four books containing images of PostSecret postcards. He draws huge crowds when he visits college campuses in the U.S.
Based on all of this, it seems that there is something very powerful, especially for younger people, about this anonymous sharing of secrets. Something compelling about this world or context where people reveal things about themselves they might not otherwise reveal. Something intriguing about this place where people are demonstrating at least some kind of openness and honest about themselves. You people, though not only young people, are attracted to this world.
We’re talking about this today, because on the Montreal Gazette’s website this week they carried the news story that PostSecret is going mobile – which means that you can now use your phone to post secrets, or to read the anonymous secrets posted by people on your street or in your neighbourhood or in your city. Again, to show how significant PostSecret is for the younger generations, the PostSecret phone app was best-selling phone application in Canada and the U.S. within 24 hours of going on sale. As the Montreal Gazette headline put it: “Skeletons in the closet see daylight with new PostSecret app.”
As we said from the beginning of this sermon series, The Gospel and the Gazette, we want to take our world seriously. As an expression of love, we take seriously what is happening in our world, our society, in the lives of young and old alike around us. To read the paper is to take the world seriously and is an expression of love. But again, we don’t take the world too seriously, in the sense that we want to look at our world in the light of Christ’s coming kingdom. We want to see and examine and understand our world with the eyes of faith. This might mean affirming something about the world around us – it might equally mean expressing hesitations – it might mean being critical to some extent.
As we think about the PostSecret phenomenon perhaps we could begin with a couple of general, positive comments about it. The first thing to say, perhaps, is that this anonymous sharing of secrets could actually be a healthy or positive thing for the individuals who share them. A Christian psychologist and theologian named Richard Beck has written about the PostSecret phenomenon, and he suggests that posting a secret, even anonymously, can be a part of personal healing. When we put down in writing the shame that has a grip on us – when we wrestle with a fear by secretly sharing it with the world – when we describe our situation by putting pen to paper – the effect can be helpful to us personally. According to the psychologist, doing this can help us gain insight into ourselves – it might help a person get control over emotions and thoughts that had gotten control of him or her. Sharing a secret in this way can be powerful if the person does it in an engaged, and meaningful way.
Now it’s an open question how many people approach PostSecret in this serious way. Some will use it to titillate; some will use it to be vindictive; some will share things that are banal or boring. But for those who use it in wrestling with their own wrongdoing, shame, or fear, some degree of healing result from it. Surely this can in some sense be received as a gift of God. It seems consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ – in which God comes to our world with the forgiveness and freedom, the healing and wholeness in which God intended us to live from the beginning. The narratives of healing within the gospel are often narratives of personal healing – narratives in which very personal restoration and renewal are accomplished. Think of the demon-possessed man, restored to wholeness. Think of the lepers freed from the shame and dehumanization of their disease. We can affirm the personal healing that some might find through sharing anonymous secrets through PostSecret.
There’s another sense in which we can think positively about PostSecret. It’s not insignificant that Frank Warren does some work with suicide prevention organizations. In fact, this very weekend he is speaking at a conference in Washington D.C. put on by an organization called I’m alive. It’s an internet-based crisis hot-line where those who are really struggling in life – those who are often living alone with secrets about themselves and their own anxiety or depression. Frank Warren understands that our secrets can be powerful in negative and he’s teaming up with those who can help.
But again, as we think about PostSecret, we want to do so decisively through the lens of the gospel. Doing so, there are a couple of things at least that might give us pause. And one of those things is the whole notion of anonymity. With PostSecret, of course, remain anonymous. You are not face to face with anyone. You are not sharing your identity with anyone – not sharing yourself, in the fullest sense. It’s fair to say, in fact, that the internet age seems to be, increasingly, an age of anonymity. We comment on things anonymously. We browse anonymously. We share secrets anonymously. We often interact anonymously. Without sharing names… Without revealing faces…
When we think about this, in a parallel sense it’s interesting that we also live in an age in which the word ‘community’ is thrown around with abandon. You hear that word everywhere. And yet it’s in precisely this age, the age in which community is supposed to matter, that relationships of distance and anonymity are so prevalent In the internet age, we are very often removed from each other, we relate only at a distance – as if touch, and tone of voice, and body language, and eye contact, are secondary.
Here I’d like to pick up a little verse that sits beautifully at the end of the letter of James. The apostle says to the recipients of his letter: “Therefore confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.” The gospel of Jesus Christ, proclaimed in the New Testament, is a gospel that is inherently communal. It is expressed in so many different ways: you are the body of Christ; you are one in Christ; you are one in the Spirit; you are one building constructed in the love of Christ.
The theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, reflects on these words of James with these words: “It may be that Christians, notwithstanding their shared worship, their common prayer, and all their fellowship in service, may still be left to their loneliness. The final-break-through to fellowship does not occur, because, though they have fellowship with one another as believers and as devout people, they do not have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners. The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner.” (repeat italicized passage)
Our life as followers of Jesus is a shared life. Our life is a shared life. But in order for that shared life to really be meaningful – in order for us really to experience community as the people of God – we have to become a fellowship of sinners. We might use different language – to really experience community as the people of God, means that we must share together in our pain, in our grief, in our shame. Without this kind of sharing, we are not true to our identity as the children of God.
Let’s put it this way: the cross of Jesus reminds us that Christian community is not a fellowship of the strong – Christian community is not a fellowship of the put-together – Christian community is not a fellowship of the competent. Christian community is not a fellowship of the powerful. Christian community is a fellowship of the broken. In this sense, the church should look and sound a little more like PostSecret. Yet, we only break through to Christian community when we share our brokenness face to face – when we pray for one another in our brokenness – and when we enter into healing together. To find such healing, we must ultimately get past anonymity and distance.
Yes, Postsecret might offer healing at an individual to some – but the gospel is never only about our personal healing. The gospel is not merely therapy for the individual. The gospel is about healed relationships – and relationships that heal. In the language of James, again: “Therefore confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.”
PostSecret gets something right, in the sense that it might bring healing to some. And in some ways the church needs to look more like PostSecret – since the Body of Christ is to be a place where our grief and pain and sin and brokenness meets the healing or forgiveness of Christ.
But the face to face encounter matters. In this sense also, it matters – that the gospel invites us to encounter with God. The Old and the New Testament don’t merely invite us to personal healing – and they don’t invite us only to healed relationships and relationships that heal – rather the narratives of the Old and the New Testament invite us to healing in our relationship with God. They invite a restored relationship – a restored face to face encounter – with God.
We read this morning that powerful passage from Leviticus – a passage that describes the elaborate system of sacrifice around the Day of Atonement – an elaborate system of sacrifice by which the brokenness relationship between Israel and God is symbolized – an elaborate system of sacrifice by which that relationship is also restored. That passage describes a moment in which the people’s alienation from God is undone. Where the love and mercy of God triumph.
It is that triumph – the triumph of love and mercy – that is accomplished finally in Jesus. In the letter to the Hebrews it is put like this: “Since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that his, his body, and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience, and having our bodies washed with pure water.”
Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith. The message of the New Testament is that any secret we would send anonymously to PostSecret can be brought honestly and openly to the God who has created us, the God who has embraced us, the God who brings us wholeness and healing in Christ. With this God, into whose presence we come freely, there is no need for anonymity – indeed anonymity is an impossibility. God knows our names. God knows who we are. God numbers the hairs of our heads. God heals. God forgives. Thanks be to God, through Christ our Lord. Amen.