The Universe is Watching

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“Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.”
Jeremiah 2:12-13 (NRSV)

In the prophecy of Jeremiah, God is calling the universe to witness how the nation of Israel has walked away from God despite God’s continual outpouring of grace, mercy and his unique loving-kindness. In a sense, God is calling the universe, the world, and it’s inhabitants as a jury or as witnesses to give testimony about the actions of Israel.

The church should be mindful of this call. The eyes of the universe, the world and our neighborhoods are upon us. Are we being conduits for the fountain of living water? Are we aware of and proclaiming God’s grace, mercy and his unique loving-kindness? Can the eyes of the universe see and the ears of our neighbors hear?

Or, do they find a church community proud of their poorly dug cistern? A broken cistern that leaks water and does not refresh. A cistern that draws in precious resources that are quickly squandered like a buried talent. Are we so proud of our cistern that we spend more time trying to plug the leaky holes with our fingers that our backs our constantly turned away from the thirsty and parched?

Are the eyes of the universe shocked by our actions?

Or, are the lips of the universe refreshed through our actions so that they might sing the praises of the fountain and source of the water we share?

What’s Next?

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Newly hooded graduates leave the sanctuary.

I thought I would share with you my commencement speech for the recent, and also last, commencement celebration for Fuller Seminary here in Sacramento. I got a pretty good response for it, but this was definitely something I was preaching to myself. I needed to hear this just as much as I needed to write and share it. More now that I sit, yet again, with another job outside of my education and goals.

Here I sit weeks away from being laid-off from a job I was really enjoying. I am one week away from being distanced from opportunities and networks I was forming and putting into place. I am one week away from having to re-evaluate and re-adjust my “plan” after having felt comfortable enough to even have a “plan” to begin with.

So, hopefully this speaks to you as much as it did to me.

I would like to start by congratulating the graduates on this huge accomplishment. I remember what it felt like having made it to this point. I can recall the relief you’ve all felt as you sent off that last research paper. I also know the slight twinge of fear that might be forming in your hearts and minds as you begin to wonder, what’s next? When I graduated *WAY* back in 2012, I was not exactly sure what was waiting for me on the other side of this stage either. As your fellow alumni now, I thought I would take a few minutes to let you know what that “What’s next?” question looked like for me. I know that some of your stories may look like mine and some may be completely different. But, hopefully there’s something for everyone here.

First of all, about a year before I graduated I stepped out of full-time ministry in order to work towards “bigger and better” ministry opportunities. I had been a youth pastor for nearly seven years and wanted to try to work towards whatever that “What’s next?” looked like for me.

To give you a peak at how this story ends, I have not held a full time, part-time or even stipened ministry position since.

I’ve worked as a graphic designer for the Crocker Art Museum here in downtown Sacramento. I’ve worked for a home infusion company verifying health insurance benefits. And most recently, I stand here as an Admissions Counselor for Fuller which, as most of you know, is ending in a few weeks.

While I have not worked in a church or in professional ministry for nearly 5 years, in many ways I’m still asking, “What’s next?” But, since I’ve walked across the commencement stage, it’s strange how ministry opportunities arise and my education at Fuller has been put to use

One of my first “non-ministry” moments came when I was working at the Crocker Art Museum. I was excited to go to my very first staff meeting to see and meet my new coworkers. At the end of the meeting though, everyone got up and left. I had this strange feeling that, “We need to close in prayer.” But, I realized…that’s right…I’m not working at church anymore. They don’t do that here. But, a unique ministry opportunity came in my relationship with my boss. He was an openly gay man and through conversations I had with him, I learned that his devout Catholic parents had essentially told him that they loved him but they were sad he was going to hell. He knew I was a Christian and I’m sure he thought I would say something similar. Rather, I told him that I was sorry his parents had told him that, and I chose instead to try and demonstrate and communicate the love, grace and mercy of Jesus to him whenever I could. Later I would have the opportunity to lead a short class about one of the works of art in the museum and he came up to me later and said, “You were using your pastor voice there.” Even though I was talking about a work of art, and not overtly bringing my faith into play, it was clear to him where my passion and drive to teach others had come from. We continue to be good friends.

My next job verifying health insurance for a home infusion company was about as close to being in the movie “Office Space” as I could get. I had to clock in and out, worked at a cubicle, had strict 30 minute lunches, my day to day work was constantly being measured for efficiency and production. There was even one point where a consulting firm was brought in to determine how our processes could be made even more efficient. About the only thing I needed to complete the image was a red stapler. Again, through conversations with my coworkers, people began to very quickly pick up what I was about. After learning that I had a Master of Divinity, one of my cubicle neighbors asked, “Then what are you doing here?” It was a question I had asked myself on more than one occasion while I worked there as well. But, one day a friend came up to me and said, “You’re a pastor type person right?” I said yes and then she said, “Can you pray for me and my family?” Other coworkers would regularly ask my advice about all sorts of things. From how to handle their kids to relationships and even what type of bed sheets to buy. In a way, I became the resident “pastor” simply because people knew who I was and that I cared about them.

So, while my “What’s next” does not include stepping into a thriving and unique ministry. Nor does it include planting the next best church in the area. I’ve learned that answering the “What’s next” question does not necessarily mean you take a full-time position in a church or grow or develop a ministry. Answering “What’s next” does not mean you’ve taken your next steps towards ascending the glittering steps of the academic Ivory tower.

To answer the “what’s next” question, it’s tempting to trot out Jeremiah 29:11 as supporting verse in this time, “I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope,” which most people take to mean that God is moving you towards some better plan than where you are currently at. Instead, I take encouragement from a few verses earlier, Jeremiah 29:7 where God tells the exiled Israelites to, “Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare.” Obviously, I have no idea what it looks like for my city to be conquered, my temple burned and to be marched off into exile. But, I stand here knowing that I will be laid off at the end of the month and I honestly have no idea “what’s next”. But, an essential part of my “What’s next?” story has been to promote the welfare of wherever I have found myself. “What’s next?” meant praying for where I was at and the people that were around me. “What’s next” meant showing up and doing a good job even though it was not the job I wanted at the time. It means showing up and doing a good job even though that job is ending. I may not end up working in a church, but I know that wherever I go, God will give me sheep to tend to. During this time I began to refer to myself as a “Freelance Minister” because I was learning to be open to any and all ministry opportunities as they arose. It forced me to listen to the needs and concerns of others to know how to pray for and promote their welfare rather than to try and convince them of my vision for ministry and their life.

So, my fellow alumni. Answering the “What’s next” question does not always mean you know where your next job lies. Being able to answer “What’s next” means being able to take what you’ve learned, theology, Greek, Hebrew, ethics, history, preaching, counseling, etc. and being able to synthesize and apply that to whatever context, career, city, neighborhood or circle you find yourself in. Sometimes you become Paul, sent to the ends of the Earth to spread the word. Sometimes you become Priscilla and Aquilla, wife and husband team church planters. Sometimes you become Tabitha who was known for “always doing good and helping the poor.” Sometimes you become Joseph and are called to be faithful wherever both in prison and Pharoah’s house.

I don’t know what’s next for any of you. But, what I do know is that as long as you are praying for and promoting the welfare of wherever you are at, you are using this degree you are about to receive to its fullest potential. May you have the eyes to see and the ears to hear the opportunities God has placed before you wherever “What’s next?” leads you.

On Being an Image of God

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I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that most of you did not sacrifice a bull today and offer it to your chosen God. You probably did not pour olive oil over an idol hoping for a good crop and you probably did not wave incense in front of an image of your ancestor praying for a good day at work. These are things we often dismissively attribute to our ancient, misguided forbears.

Worshiping ancient gods was a tough business. Most ancient religions saw their gods as petty, fickle and requiring constant feeding, attention and affirmation. Incense, fire, animals, crops, virgins, eunuchs, and even your own children were often demanded as offerings in service to the gods. These offerings were often laid before some kind of image of said god in the hopes that your prayers and petitions would be answered. Healthy crops, appropriate amounts of rain, love, birth of children, health for you and your family, death and pestilence for your enemies were all potential requests. If you wanted something, there was a god for that. And you made your appeal before their likeness, and image of them if you will.

Judaism bursts on the scene and makes a unique claim, in Exodus there is the command that,

“Do not make an idol for yourself—no form whatsoever—of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth. Do not bow down to them or worship them, because I, the Lord your God, am a passionate God.”
Exodus 20:4-5 (CEB)

In Judaism there are to be no idols to worship. Worship of God is not to be defined and mediated by worship of things created by human hands. God is wholly other and he is to be worshiped and honored as such. Appeals to God are to be made not in front of idols, but at the Tabernacle, and later the Temple, where God’s “presence”  resides. The prophet Habakkuk has strong words for those who would choose to worship idols,

Of what value is an idol, when its potter carves it, or a cast image that has been shaped? It is a teacher of lies, for the potter trusts the pottery, though it is incapable of speaking.

Doom to the one saying to the tree, “Wake up!” or “Get up” to the silent stone.
Does it teach? Look, it is overlaid with gold and silver, but there is no breath within it.
Habakkuk 2:18-19 (CEB)

For the prophet Habakkuk, there is no reason to worship these idols as there is not breath (or life/spirit) within it. Why worship what is not living when you can worship the one, true and living God? Why appeal to that which has no ability to speak or move?

Earlier in the Bible, there is another unique claim about images and breath. The Genesis story contains this nugget,

“God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.”
Genesis 1:27 (CEB)

And in the next chapter,

“The Lord God formed the human from the topsoil of the fertile land and blew life’s breath into his nostrils. The human came to life…”
Genesis 2:7 (CEB)

In the Jewish mindset, built into the foundations of creation is the understanding that humanity itself is a living, breath/spirit filled, image of their unseen, transcendent and all powerful God. While this does not mean we should go around worshiping humanity as some idol and image for God, I think there is a unique message to derive from this. But, before we get to that…let’s sprinkle in one of my favorite stories from the Gospels.

There’s this great story in the Gospels (I’m going to use Luke’s version), where Jesus has again been surrounded by a crowd listening to him speak. They hang out for quite a long time, so long that everyone is starting to get hungry and it’s a good time for a dinner break. Being the astute observers that they are, the disciples come to Jesus and suggest that it might be a good idea to send everyone into town so they can get some food since there’s no easy way to get food for everyone in the “deserted place” they currently are. Jesus looks at his disciples and, I imagine with a wry smirk, he says,

“You give them something to eat.”
Luke 9:13 (CEB)

The disciples begin to freak out because they barely have enough food for themselves and definitely not enough money to by enough food to feed everyone. Jesus then famously proceeds to use the five loaves and two fish they have to feed everyone gathered there and there’s even leftovers to pick up afterwards.

What I love about this story, and connecting it to the image and idol discussion above, is that the disciples see a need (maybe they heard the appeals of the crowd) but they in turn appeal to Jesus to encourage the people to solve the problem themselves. Instead, Jesus turns it around and makes it the disciples responsibility to meet the requests of the gathered crowd. “You give them something to eat.”

The disciples are not responding to their calling, indeed their foundational created purpose, to be an image of the creator and sustainer God to hear the appeals of these people and to meet their needs.

Humanity has tried to avoid this calling forever. Indeed, we still often respond like the disciples do in this story. But, if we are created in God’s image, then we have the responsibility to be the physical presence of God in the world. Not fickle and demanding like the ancient gods that were worshipped. But compassionate, caring and (most importantly) alive and present. We can be the ears that hear the appeals of others, we can be the eyes to see them and the hands and feet to help them. Prayer and intercession are well and good and great when time, distance or other obstacles prevent us from helping in tangible, incarnational ways. But, our first inclination should always be to “give them something to eat” rather than to “send the crowd away,” with prayers and good vibes hoping they may find a solution to their problems.

We are a living image of the living God who has breathed into us and called us to meet the needs of our neighbors, who are making their appeals to God through us. We can make tangible the promises and provision of God, when God feels absent, we can make him feel present. When, like the Psalmist, somebody cries, “Why do you stand so far away, Lord,
hiding yourself in troubling times?” (Psaom 10:1, CEB) we can respond and make alive the promise spoken through Jesus, “I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.” (Matthew 28:20, CEB).

The Idol of Our Stability

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Ruins of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, Turkey.

Recently, our church has been reading through the book of Acts. A few Sunday’s ago the sermon centered on the stories of Paul’s message at the Areopagus (or Mars Hill) and the following story of the riot in Ephesus.

“A silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought in a lot of business for the craftsmen there. He called them together, along with the workers in related trades, and said: “You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business. And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that gods made by human hands are no gods at all. There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.” When they heard this, they were furious and began shouting: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” Soon the whole city was in an uproar. The people seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul’s traveling companions from Macedonia, and all of them rushed into the theater together…The assembly was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there.”‭‭
Acts‬ ‭19:24-29, 32‬ ‭(NIV‬‬)

Demetrius is afraid of Paul preaching this upstart religion which is going to cut into his business. If everyone turns from idols and believes in one god, nobody is going to want to buy the idols that him and his fellow craftsmen are making. They are the dominant religious and economic force in the region and they see Paul as a threat. Demetrius then veils himself in piety with the statement, “There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.” His first concern is for his business, then he turns to his secondary concern about the glory of Artemis.

If this story sounds slightly familiar, I don’t think things have changed much from Demetrius and Paul’s time to today. However, the shoe is on the other foot.

Christians in the Western culture of today are in the majority. Yet, as many reports, studies and surveys have shown…things are shifting. We are often the ones who feel like there’s something to lose when differing ideologies move in on our turf. We can often feel like our “way of life” is being altered and our “values” are being infringed upon because somebody else has a different way of seeing things. Much like Demetrius and the crowd in Ephesus, Christians can get riled up when they feel like their way of life is under attack and God may “robbed of [His] divine majesty.”

Is this truly the way of Christ? Many people will cite Jesus’ shenanigans with a whip and tables at the Temple as reason for their response. But, Jesus was taking issue with the powerful majority who was squeezing out the powerless minority.

“After entering the temple, he threw out those who were selling and buying there. He pushed over the tables used for currency exchange and the chairs of those who sold doves. He didn’t allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He taught them, “Hasn’t it been written, My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations? But you’ve turned it into a hideout for crooks.”
Mark 11:15-17 (CEB)

Doves are highlighted here because they are the sacrifice allowed for the poorest of the poor (see Leviticus 5:7). So, Jesus is not upset because he feels like outsiders or minorities are challenging the status quo. He’s upset because those in power are deliberately keeping out the minorities, outsiders and needy and taking advantage of them in the process.

It can feel good to have a crowd behind you and to be in the majority. But, again I have to ask…is this the way Christ? Christ who had all the power in the cosmos, but gave up his “divine majesty” to look like a servant. Christ who commanded demons and chatted with Elijah and Moses yet stooped down to wash the disciples sand-covered feet. Christ who fed the hungry, healed the sick and raised the dead yet who was crucified, seemingly “discredited” by an angry crowd. Christ who was whipped, spit upon, demeaned and degraded yet is now worshiped throughout the heavens and the earth.

If Christ was not afraid of stepping down from his place of authority to serve those who did not deserve it…we should not fear either.

Learning how to do Church from the Blue Man Group

What could our churches learn from the Blue Man Group?

It was probably a year ago or so that I was weaving my way down Highway 17 towards Santa Cruz busting through my neglected list of podcasts. After listening to a few theologically deep podcasts, I needed a palate cleanser of sorts. I turned to The Moth podcast which is one of my favorites for easy listening on long drives. The podcast I clicked on featured a story told by a man who used to be a part of the Blue Man Group. While I’ve never seen a Blue Man Group show, I’ve always been a fan of what they do and I dream of watching it live some day. This was an easy choice to listen to for me. Little did I know that this podcast would open my eyes to some deep Christian truth and theology. If you want, please take some time to listen to the story.

To set the stage, he reveals some of the elements of the show. He discusses that the show is essentially about “connectedness and community” with the audience. The audience has come to not only enjoy, but be engaged by the show. One guest is chosen to be a “feast guest” who is invited on stage to participate in the show and serve as a sort of surrogate for the audience. This is all accomplished in typical, non-verbal, Blue Man Group style. It was the responsibility of the Blue Man telling the story to pick whoever would be the guest for the night. He has been doing the whole “Blue Man” thing for so long that it has lost a bit of its initial luster. So, he’s looking for a way to breathe some life into what has become rote to him. This one evening he goes out into the crowd to find a “guest” for the evening and out there he discovers a lady who he describes as “bright and beaming” and totally excited to be there. Figuring there is no better person, he invites her on stage. Once on stage they remove her poncho (ala, “splash-zone” poncho at Sea World or whatever) and everyone in the room discovers a very important fact about this woman…

She only has one arm.

I don’t want to spoil the whole talk (again, you really should go and listen to it), but initially everyone is a little shocked. Except for the woman, who is still as excited and beaming as before. The Blue Men are, non-verbally, trying to figure out how to adjust the show for this woman. Hoping to not offend or make too much of a joke about her just revealed, one-armedness. The audience is breathlessly awaiting how they’re going to make this awkward situation go away. What then transpires is a surprising mix of the Blue Men trying to adapt to the situation but the woman revealing unique ways she has adapted to her world and teaches the Blue Men new ways to live. Her one-armedness does not slow her down a bit and she becomes an essential (and very successful) part of the show.

And it all revolves around a Twinkie. Seriously…go listen for the Twinkie.

And as they wrap up the show, he describes what it felt like:

“The audience bursts into this enormous applause for her…she was the catalyst for this whole thing to happen…that ability to remain present and be honest and fearless…the space has completely changed…the theater has become as large and as opulent as the Bolshoi.”

And these three Blue Men burst into tears as they pound on their drums and conclude the show.

Honestly, I was crying a bit by the end of the podcast as well. It is a beautiful story of humility, selflessness, service and openness to the stories/lives of others.

While that Blue Man show was not held in a church, cathedral, sanctuary or previously holy place. I believe something very close to Church happened in that space. I believe this story illustrates how we in the church are supposed to operate when others enter our midst. There is a temptation to silo off and make allowances for others who do not fit into whatever our definition of “normal” may be.

Put the singles in that group.

Send the kids over there.

Don’t let those people in.

Give the seniors an early morning service.

You can’t do that and come here.

Most of these are well-intentioned, but they miss a very important opportunity that this story highlights. The Blue Men learned how to live in a new way by inviting this woman to their feast, they began to see life through her eyes and she through theirs. She had the time of her life all because they invited her to their table in-spite of her disability. In fact, her disability melted away into ability as they all shifted their actions and outlook towards each other.

When he said, “the theater has become as large and as opulent as the Bolshoi,” I believe they essentially felt the space became holy. What was meant for one purpose, was turned into something wholly other. That show room in New York was transformed into sacred space.

The moment became holy because the Blue Men ceased to be the only entertainers in the room.

The moment became holy because the woman’s one-armedness became essential rather than an exception.

The moment became holy because every person felt whole, accepted and part of the feast.

The moment became holy because even in a moment of weakness, they offered mutual grace and support.

And everyone in the room felt the change.

The image is not lost on me that this is the power of the Table of Christ. When we sit at the table and share this “body and blood” of Christ with other followers we all become whole and accepted. We have all been invited by Christ, not because of who we are, who we are not, what we have or what we don’t have. We have been invited because Christ selflessly stepped down so that we would have a seat at his table. When we partake and participate with others, in that mutual sharing, we all become “whole.” Obviously all the pain and suffering in the world does not melt away just because we ate some bread and grape juice. But, in that moment we acknowledge that Jesus has created space for us all to be whole and see each other as whole in this broken and painful world.

Man, woman, child, senior, Blue Man or One-armed woman, we mutually create the sacred space that Christ has invited us into for the healing and wholeness of the world.

And that, my dear friends, is Church.

Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 2:1-5 (CEB)

Selfies with the Cross

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Kevin Lee Light, dressed as Jesus, takes a selfie in London (Click for story)

I don’t know how hip you are to current trends, but in case you’ve missed the last few years of pop culture and technology…selfies are a thing. This phenomenon created by having cameras wherever we go that can be used to easily take self portraits have elevated the concept of a selfie to our almost daily vernacular. You may have seen this photo last year…

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Apparently, it “broke” the internet.

So, here we are in a culture where people are taking pictures of themselves in (what they deem as) notable situations and sharing them publicly for all their friends to see (yes, I’m still thinking about all this social media stuff). What strikes me as interesting about the selfie is that it allows people to connect themselves to certain people and places. On one level, the selfie is “proof” that you were there, you touched them, you climbed it, you ate it and/or you saw it. But, I also think, the selfie subtly and subconsciously communicates that we are attempting to identify with whatever or whomever is also featured in the selfie. Sure it’s about the moment, but what does that moment say about who I am, where I’ve gotten and who I’m with?

Selfies communicate identity. 

Or, at least, our concept of what our identity is.

I began thinking about the selfie on Sunday during the sermon at our church. Our pastor shared this painting of the crucifixion by Rembrandt.

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Rembrandt, Raising of the Cross (c. 1633) Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

In this painting, there are many highlighted people. It was odd for me that even though this is a painting of Jesus on the cross, my eye was not immediately drawn to Jesus. I saw the odd man wearing a turban in the back, the man in the blue hat/beret holding up the cross and even the soldier pulling the cross up before my gaze ended up at Jesus. Our pastor pointed out that the man in the blue hat helping raise the cross was actually Rembrandt. Rembrandt had included himself in his painting helping hoist up the cross with the crucified Christ. Some people even say that the man in a turban on the horse is also Rembrandt overseeing the crucifixion. Many painters did this as a sort of signature or simply that their face was the most readily accessible for reference. Either way, it is very interesting to me that Rembrandt included himself in the action of the painting. He is not detached from his work, he knows he is involved in it. From the choice of colors to the setting (which is decidedly not first-century, Roman occupied Palestine) Rembrandt is a part of the work and he has included himself in it.

In this painting, Rembrandt has identified himself with the crucifixion (like a selfie) but he has also involved himself with the action. He is part of raising the cross, he is part of the crowd, he is part of the action.

I see this as a strong challenge to our “selfie” culture, especially within the church. Often people just want to identify with Jesus or with the traditions of the church. But, the true challenge of Jesus is for his followers to, “deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Selfies are often not about involving yourself, or picking anything up but a camera. Followers of Jesus are invited into his story and seek to identify with his humility, service and sacrifice. This involves not only picking up our own cross to bear but, much like Rembrandt, realizing our culpability with powers and oppression that allowed God in Christ to be executed and crucified.

We carry our cross at the same time we acknowledge our participation in raising Christ’s.

We are not just bystanders observing, letting the world know we were there by snapping a photo. We are to see ourselves as part of the crowd, yelling “Crucify him” and “Give us Barabbas!” We are Simon, called out of the crowd to help Jesus make his appointment with the executioner. We are Pilate washing our hands of the matter, and (hopefully) we are the centurion acknowledging that “Surely, this man was the Son of God.”

What I Learned Giving Up Social Media for Lent

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Happy Easter, Christ is risen (He is risen indeed) and the tomb is empty. Along with that, I’m reinstalling my various social media apps back on my phone.

Honestly, I do not think Facebook, Twitter and Instagram were things Christ had in mind when he breathed anew Easter morning. Yet, here we are 2000 years later wrestling with the technology in our pockets.

I chose to free myself from the various forms of social media for Lent because I could tell it was occupying a significant share of my time, my heart and my head. Some recent interactions on social media helped guide me to this choice and I honestly wrestled with the idea of dropping Facebook completely. I figured I would give it the 40 days of Lent to understand more the place of social media in my life and maybe some better ways to approach it. There’s nothing like dropping something cold turkey to see exactly how much it has wedged itself into your life. Here’s three observations I made as I walked through those 40 days.

Observation #1 – Why do I feel a need to share this?

I love photos and photography and shared a fair amount of my pictures on social media. After deleting the apps from my phone, I was almost instantly confronted with the temptation to share a photo. I think it was literally day one or two this came up for me. After taking a photo I felt the almost automatic urge to head over to Instagram, nostaligia-ize it and share it with my friends. After realizing this was not an option, I began to wonder.

Why the urge to share this photo? Was this photo really that important? Could I enjoy this photo and this moment without sharing it?

It was interesting to me how even the concept of sharing a photo and seeing responses to that photo gave me the impression I was connected to and connecting with people. We all do this. We love sharing common experiences and memories. That’s why we tell stories. It defines who we are and our space in our communities and world. How has this kind of sharing on social media (kids, food, cute cat videos, political ideas, etc.) changed the way we see ourselves in community with others? Just because they liked my photo, does that mean we share something in common? Sure it’s different if my mom likes the photo rather than a long lost acquaintance from high school. But, if I did not want to share much with them in High School, why would I care if they liked something now?

Observation #2 – Social media needs me

A couple weeks into my social media fast I wondered if people missed seeing me on their feeds. Certainly my friends and family were missing out on all sorts of wonderful thoughts and photos (see observation #1) that I was unable to share? But (probably not surprisingly) nobody, except for my mother, said they missed me posting to social media. Nobody sent me text messages, nobody called or emailed to tell me that they wished I would start posting again.

You know who missed me? Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

I began receiving new types of emails from them beyond the typical notifications. “Check out this post…”, “Did you know who’s birthday it is?”, “Somebody uploaded a photo.” They knew I was gone and they wanted…no…they needed me to come back. I was not liking, commenting or clicking on things anymore and they were trying to get me to come back. The notifications about people I followed were really an act to get me back and see some advertising, a sponsored post or visit a sponsors website.

Social media outlets want you to think that you “need” to be on their sites so that you don’t miss out. You “need” to post something because all your friends and family want to hear/see what you are currently thinking/hearing/seeing. The reality is, nobody really “needs” to see what we share on social media. Social media needs us. Discussions about the viability of Facebook or Twitter are never about how many cat videos or cute baby photos are posted. They are always questioned about monetizing their feeds. They don’t need to know how much you love your mother, your baby, your significant other or your recently home-cooked, paleo-organic gourmet masterpiece. But, they need me to post that so that you will come look at it and maybe click on something sponsored.

Observation #3 – Being social > Social media

During this time I found myself hanging out and meeting up for drinks with friends more than I had in the past. I do not believe this was because I gave up social media, but was probably more due to the impending loss of my job (yeah for networking!). Either way, I found my social interactions IRL (in real life) to be much more rewarding, encouraging, soul-sustaining and generally nicer than what I had recently been engaged in on social media. It’s too easy to talk over someone, depersonalize them and scroll past things on social media. Face to face, I felt like I actually engaged in a conversation and got to know someone on a deeper level.

Let me give an example. A few days ago, I was at Chick’fil’a enjoying a spicy chicken sandwich. At the table next to me, people were engaging in a conversation that I disagreed with. I could have butted in, provided my counter-arguments, “dropped the mic” and walked away. This seems to be how most interactions happen on social media. There is very little relationship, very little aspect of being social, but a lot of butting in and talking because social media requires that we share so…we share.

I chose to keep quiet and enjoy my spicy chicken sandwich while looking forward to a conversation I was about to share with a new friend over coffee. If I didn’t feel like butting in then, why would I feel like I could on social media?

Sure, there is great value in making new connections and being able to communicate with family and friends far away that social media can facilitate. I have made many new friends through connections on social media. Also, I actually had to ask people what was going on in their life as I had not seen their recent posts and photos on Facebook. It is much harder to pigeonhole someone when they’re sitting across the table from you. I can’t drop a well-researched and well thought out comment and just walk out when they are three feet away. I have to be engaged in the conversation and I have to be open to hearing what the other person has said or experienced so that they might offer me the same courtesy. Conversations and an openness to others ideas and experiences can happen over social media, but it is typically not required or even offered.

So, here I am. I’m back on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. I hope to give more thought to my interactions and posts because, there is some value out there. Hopefully my observations have helped you out some. Feel free to leave a comment or share this post with your friends if you’ve found it helpful.