Preparing to Prepare for Christmas (Part 1 of 2)
[I sat down to write about a message that I saw and shared on Facebook during the course of Election Night two weeks ago, because it seemed like an especially timely topic. But as I got into it, I realized that I first needed to wrestle some thoughts into words about the whole subject of social media, which is something I know other staff members have also written about lately. So this ended up becoming, “part one.”]
I do not yet have a handle on how best to engage with social media. There are two challenges in particular that I wrestle with.
First, I am as tempted as anyone to take a spare moment and check Facebook/Instagram/Twitter (I know there are other options, but I’m trying to ignore them until we have teenagers in our house). I’m always eager to learn what folks are saying or doing–about anything, really, but especially if I have a vested interest. I can always see if anyone’s left a “like” or a comment for me or for one of the several Lake Nixon-related accounts.
But there’s also that immediate satisfaction that comes from receiving new information, just because it’s new and attractively packaged. I know that the opportunity is always right there for seemingly inexhaustible novelty at a moment’s notice. I’m rarely aware in the moment that sophisticated, behind-the-scenes technology ensures that what I see on social media has been selected in order to be as enticing as possible for me. What I see is based on what (or who) I’ve read or at least clicked on recently, what I’ve recently shopped for, watched on tv, my demographic profile, the other things I’ve officially “liked,” and so on.
What I also get from these social media side-trips in the middle of other activities is the diverting jolt of another emotion (outrage, bewilderment, sadness, etc.) that can pull me out of or away from what I was doing, thinking, or feeling–wrestling with how to word an important message or document, preparing for a difficult conversation, coming to terms emotionally with the day’s (or hour’s) latest news, moving reluctant kids along the various stages of bedtime, sensing a stirring to pray, etc. When I return to what I was doing before, I carry residual emotions from what I just read or watched online, which is rarely helpful. I have just given over a portion of that day’s limited time and energy to this source of distraction and to the effort it takes me to return to where I was before taking that particular mental-emotional detour. If I return, that is.
The first challenge, then, is about the ways that the alternate or parallel “world” of social media can so easily take me away from commitments, intentions, and relationships I have already made. This is a real struggle, but I think I have a decent sense of where the dangers lie and the steps I can and should take in order to live well with social media. (I have great respect for my friends who have opted out of social media. For several reasons, though, I don’t believe that this is the right choice for me. Incidentally, if you’re interested in meeting–formally or informally, one-on-one, or with a small group of others–to discuss ways we can help each other engage with these media in healthy ways, please let me know! ).
The other challenge, where I have more questions than answers, has to do with the fact that social media is more than a mere source of distraction and diversion. Communicating via these new technologies is an increasingly important way that we connect with and enter into responsible relationships with the people with whom we share our life and our world– in biblical terms, our “neighbors.” Although these connections are mediated via the complicated infrastructure I described above, it’s still true that we are able to hear, say, and do things via social media that have consequences for real people in the real world.
The struggle for me in this second area has several dimensions. I won’t be able to explore them all here, but the dilemma has to do with seeking wisdom for what to say, how to say it, and when to say it (or not): What kind of “voice” is appropriate for each of us on social media?
As you may have noticed, I can have a hard time being brief and to the point. The admirable side of this is that we live in a complex and ultimately mysterious world and wisdom is rarely acquired by taking short cuts. Social media reward the quick “hot take,” the witty and pithy take-down, the meme guaranteed to rile everyone up (for or against) instantly.
I am also often overwhelmed by the sheer diversity of the people who could read something I post on social media. Since getting married 16 years ago, Jen and I have lived in five different cities and four different states. For a good bit of that time I lived a very different life as a graduate student and academic than I do now, and so I have a large segment of friends from that particular subgroup, along with all manner of other friends, family, and mere acquaintances picked up along the way. Any good communicator speaks different ways to different audiences, but what kind of audience is this? Do I try to speak across the ever-widening divides of a polarized society, or is that a waste of time? To what extent is “virtue signaling” (making an intentional effort to voice particular political stances for public consumption) a problematic behavior deserving of valid criticism and the latest form of sham piety, and when is it vitally important to stand up and be counted, to let one’s voice be heard and on the record? Who decides?
I am often tempted to be a mostly passive consumer of social media, beyond sharing harmless photos or jokes. I am even more tempted to be self-righteous about this (“God, I thank you that I am not like those people who mindlessly share and believe everything they read, or like the others who never seem to lack for an opportunity to tell everyone else exactly what they should be saying/not saying or doing/not doing”). There is certainly some wisdom in that direction.
But I am also reminded of what Martin Luther famously said: we are going to sin. Since we believe in a God whose love goes before and beyond our capacity to sin, we should “sin boldly.”
I take that to mean: life is too short to take ourselves and our potential failures more seriously than we take God’s love and the needs of the world. There is a time to speak and a time to refrain from speaking, but whatever we do, if we trust in the grace of God in Jesus Christ we should speak and act free from fear of being shamed for saying too much or too little.
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All this brings me to Election Night 2020. Besides wishing my daughter happy birthday on Facebook (as I said years ago, “if sharing too many adorable photos of my little girl is wrong, I don’t want to be right”), my only other social media activity was to share a message from my friend Emily Hunter McGowin. Here’s what she posted the night of November 3, 2020:
In moments like this, there’s no doubt we should find comfort in the truth that Jesus Christ is Lord. But it should also make us tremble.
I think the first part of the message would resonate with all sorts of people, as the country anxiously awaited the outcome of a political process with profound and serious implications — and as it became clear that the election was likely to remain in the balance, and possibly to swing back and forth, for some time.
But there was a counter-current of social media posts around the election criticizing people (sometimes in advance) for saying things like, “no matter what happens today, remember that God is in control.” This is because “Christ is Lord and God is in control” can mean one thing when someone clings to that truth in the midst of a desperate situation, and mean something entirely different when someone else says it as a way of remaining detached and above the political fray because they have the luxury of believing that, whatever happens, it won’t affect them too much.
Thankfully, Emily’s second sentence (“it should also make us tremble”) moves in a different direction.
Next week, I want to explore both sides of that statement. Some Christian traditions will celebrate next Sunday, November 22, as “Christ the King” day. It’s the last Sunday in the annual cycle of the church calendar or Christian year for these traditions—right before the year begins again with the first Sunday of Advent, which we will celebrate at 2BC on November 29, the Sunday after Thanksgiving.
What would it mean to prepare for the season in which we prepare for Christmas (“Advent”) by first thinking about “Christ the King”–especially as we are still in an election season? Why should it give us comfort and make us tremble?
Stay tuned. And in the meantime, engage in or refrain from social media, but whatever you do, sin boldly (in the way described above), because we only have so much time. And because God is Good.