My Facebook Tug-o-War

I’ll be honest — re-imagining ministry in the Covid-19 era has been kind of daunting. On bad days it’s simply one struggle too much. On good days it fuels creative juices I didn’t know I had. The features that define priestly and pastoral identity and ministry, the means which nourish our faith, the joys that grow my love for God’s people, are all being challenged, forcing a rethinking and re-imagining. Right now it feels like everything is being reduced to a two-dimensional replica of the real thing, with likely the most painful one being the inability to gather for worship and to celebrate Holy Eucharist with God’s people (I wrote about this here).

Take the dive into the online deep. Without question, technology has been a huge saving grace in this time of physical distancing and self-isolation. So much communication is now possible because of FaceTime, Zoom, and all forms of social media. Even church can be beamed into our living rooms and kitchens. Beyond doubt, it is a gift no generation before us enjoyed in their collective times of crisis.

But I have to confess that my experience with social media, Facebook in particular, has been mixed; the risks of misinterpretation, superficiality and rash moralistic judgments are real. I’ve been in a tug-o-war with Facebook for some time, well before this global health crisis hit. I resent and resist FB’s pressure to decide who my friends should be and how I should interact with them. The subtle and not-so-subtle corporate ads on my newsfeed betray a blatant disregard for my privacy and ad settings.

I’ve stopped posting photos and anecdotes from my life, likes and dislikes, interests and ambitions, out of concern about having my personal information so publicly displayed. Watching The Great Hack (2019) reassured me that I wasn’t paranoid after all: multinationals and other outfits with questionable motives drool over FB’s storehouse of consumers’ personal data. Mutual beneficial contracts allow these corporate giants to harvest our personal data to their greedy hearts’ content, turning us ordinary Joe Blows into minions that help to line their bottomless pockets. Ever wondered how the ads on our newsfeeds seem so tailor-made to our interests?

Yet I still have my FB account, because I do discover worthwhile articles through it, and it links me to my churches’ group FB which is a worthwhile communication tool. I guess this is called a mixed blessing, offering both positive connections while requiring vigilance and prudence.

When preparing for our Covid-19 lockdown I decided to stock up on reading material. It so happened that I picked up a most inconspicuous second-hand book, published in 2009 by Jesse Rice’s with the title The Church of Facebook. Church and Facebook in one title — that grabbed my attention.

Already eleven years ago, Rice noted the startling rise of Facebook as the most extensive global social media platform. He also identified FB’s rather unholy alliances with the corporate world almost from the beginning. Rice even speculates how a FB generation, growing up on a diet of likes and dislikes with little depth, will develop the interpersonal skills essential for meaningful and lifelong bonds of love.

At the same time, Rice correctly showed how FB has been growing our sense of connectedness across the globe, greatly facilitating communications across distance, language and cultures. In the process, however, FB is also redefining community and communication in ways that could have far-reaching and potentially questionable consequences: Facebook is a well where thirsty people come to drink. We are thirsty for the kind of community where we can feel at home and like ourselves. … We experience enough of an emotional buzz to keep us coming back, even though we grow increasingly thirsty with every visit. (p. 187, 2009) The reason why we grow increasingly thirsty with every FB visit, according to Rice, is because online interactions can be callously void of all aspects that make for authentic friendships and community: intentionality and consideration, respect and humility, honesty and responsibility/accountability.

Question: What is your relationship with Facebook? How does FB fit into your daily routine? How does it define you?What needs do you meet through FB?

And yet, in this virus-stricken world Facebook has become a lifeline for countless souls feeling adrift in this season of self-isolation and physical distancing, for families staying connected across time and space. For pastors and churches Facebook has become a vital way to keep in touch with parishioners. Despite the very real online temptations to reduce friendships and community to trivial likes and dislikes, today’s expressions of faith and caring, virtual hugs and consoling words online all succeed in throwing a spiritual anchor to the lost and isolated multitudes. I admit this is a genuine life-giving development of online community. In my estimation, Facebook has redeemed itself somewhat. But it behooves us all to safeguard our right to remain the agent of our online interactions, and to remain vigilant that online trust in social media does not get betrayed or exploited — we can each do our part in keeping its virtual feet to the fire of scrutiny.

Question: How will you foster online personal vigilance and maintain online agency without letting yourself be controlled and manipulated by social media?

The tug-o-war with Facebook will remain with me for a good while yet, and that’s okay. FB is like everything else; its life-giving or destructive power rests in the hands of its users. While FB ministry has been growing in meaningful ways, doing my part to keep it that way, I remain acutely aware of a significant portion of the flock without any access to the digital world. Pastors are hard-wired to ensure that all feel included. Phone calls and paper copies, hand-delivered to doorsteps, have replaced face-to-face visits.

For my pastoral instincts, this distance-connecting amounts to yet another flattening of the 3-dimensional Body-of-Christ encounter. I find myself hanging on every word at the other end, to make sure s/he feels cared for, prayed for and included. Nothing can replace the holding of a frail hand. Nothing can replace the electric current of love, consolation and healing in a body-to-body hug. No amount of virtual communication can duplicate the energy exchange that occurs in looking into real-live eyes and beholding facial expressions, revealing wisdom and depth, sorrow and pain, humour and love.

Our physical distancing for the sake of our collective health is revealing in stark ways our bodily connectedness — not only across continents, but also in the intricate web of relationships close to home. We are embodied spirits; we need one another’s physical presence to grow and thrive. On the other hand, when one of us catches Covid-19, we are all at risk. No wonder God came to us in a human body — a body that laughed and cried, a body that reached out and loved, a body that hugged and healed through touch, a body that struggled and sweated, a body that suffered and died.

Facebook is here to stay; so far FB group pages seem less polluted by intrusive ads (who knows what lurks behind the screen). It’s important to realize that all online interactions are stored and harvested, and thus require prudence and vigilance. While Facebook definitely provides valuable connections, it can never become the real thing. We are embodied spirit, and it will always be thus, because the divine Word/Spirit has become flesh … in each of us.

  • For a very recent article on Facebook’s challenges with national privacy laws, click here.

A Real Easter

It was the most chaotic and uncertain, disorienting and bewildering, stressful and scary Lent-HolyWeek-Easter that’s ever been, unless we’ve been at the brink of our own death. In that first week of our national lockdown I went numb and underwent a visceral experience of the term discombobulated. I’m a parish priest; all the Lenten and Easter plans, including Sunday worship, went out the window in one fell swoop. The pastoral visits to shut-ins and elderly — stop. It was brutal and heart-breaking. Now what? Covid-19 has brought a shocking halt to the world and the church as we knew them. Normal and habitual is out the door; unsettledness and threat have invaded every country without exception. The power of this invisible, destructive virus is almost unparalleled in its capacity to destroy our illusions of control and comfort.

Maybe this resembles in no small measure the threat and turmoil of that first Holy Week over 2000 years ago, when the world stopped, the sky darkened and the curtain of the Temple tore in two. That very first Easter did not take place in a decorated worship space with exuberant Alleluias. On the contrary, a bewildered band of disciples were shaking behind locked doors, fearing for their lives — not unlike people in some parts of the world today. Not only the Roman occupiers were out for blood, so were their own religious leaders after killing the blasphemer Jesus. It was dangerous out there. Fear devoured any confidence and courage the disciples might have had previously.

Yes, women had brought them outrageous news, that Messiah, the Anointed One, that promising prophet Jesus of Nazareth whom they had followed for three years, somehow had risen from the dead and was alive. But you know women, can’t believe every word they say. Besides, believing their message seemed too good to be true. They were nobody’s fool. If they left the place, their lives and the lives of loved ones could be at risk. Could a miracle really have happened? Could life really have won out over death? Could this time of terror and fear really come to an end?

The news of Christ’s victorious resurrection has not changed.  But the world around us has.  Or has it? The pain that always lurks just below the surface has been freshly uncovered.  This year, we did not gather in community to mark the holy days. Churches were empty. Confined to home, we prayed and created rituals as best we could on our own with help from online worship services and inspiring reflections (thank God we have safe homes to retreat into). But the numbness and shock over the Covid-19 pandemic is making every heart shake like a leaf, playing havoc with every attempt to keep the faith and to trust God; the insidious, invisible virus maybe even mocked the prayers from our lips.  After all, what does resurrection mean when people near and far are dying by the thousands? What good is it to proclaim that the tomb is empty when ventilators and body bags are in short supply, when loved ones can’t even be present at the deathbed of a relative, let alone bury them?  

Alone with their fears, the disciples wondered if hope was possible, if the long night might someday be over and if morning would ever break — refugees know these questions all too well. Could it be that God’s love was the most powerful of all, even though it didn’t seem quite real yet? Jesus came to them right through the locked doors of their hiding place and their hearts: “Peace be with you … do not be afraid.”

What is it like to meet God in our hiding places, in our places of quarantine and deepest despair? Infused with new hope and mercy and love, which drove fear and cowardice from their spirits, the disciples eventually left their hiding place, and went about with new boldness celebrating and spreading the good news that Jesus was risen and love was the most powerful force on the earth.

This year, we are getting a vivid taste of what that first Easter was like, fearing an invisible enemy. Do we dare to believe that hope is on the horizon, that new life is possible after Covid-19? The disciples were freed from their fear once they had a personal visceral experience of the risen Jesus, not because they hammered some doctrine into their heads. The Christian faith is incarnational for every believer, meaning that the human heart needs to meet Christ on the rocky ground of our lives, in the crucible of our worst fears, in the messiness of our most serious sinfulness.

Someday, when it is safe for all, we will come out of our homes and gather together again. My prayer is that each of us will have had a personal encounter with the risen Christ in the depths of our own despair, and that this encounter will fill us with light and life and love and mercy anew. Then our singing and shouting the good news that God brings life even out of death, that love always has the final say, will resound across the globe and it will sound very real. Anything not borne from an intimate visceral encounter with the light of Christ risks sounding hollow and archaic, an ancient watered down memory that the world does not need.

For once, this crisis is pulsating with the promise of a real, visceral Easter. We are still locked in our houses, the economy crippled, the social fabric of our culture in a holding cell. Yes, good and creative things are happening in the midst of the lockdown; God’s light is striving to break through. But most us remain frightened by the uncertainty of the future, hungering and thirsting for resurrection. It will happen. If God raised Jesus from the dead, trampling down death by death, then surely a virus will be trampled down and usher in a new dawn of hope for all people. Christ is risen — Alleluia.

Flattening the Worship Curve?

Announcing the suspension of all worship services until further notice was heart-breaking. The last in-person meeting with our Vestry and Council members (and two joining via Zoom) was emotional and bewildering. Strong preference was expressed to find ways to keep the members of our two congregations connected. Online worship service, several suggested. And without much thinking we all thought we could do that.

Until one member cried from her heart: “That is not the same. Our faith is a relational faith, we need to gather in person in order to receive the fullness of the encounter with God and with one another.” But we all knew that “gathering as usual” was not an option. We are now asked to live the painful paradox of solidarity and communion by keeping apart from one another, all to fight this invisible enemy called Covid-19. We are asked to live a painful social separation just when we need one another the most. It’s not the kind of Lenten fast any of us had anticipated.

Within days of that last in-person Council/Vestry meeting, online worship services popped up like mushrooms growing overnight. Just like that, countless priests, pastors and ministers of all denominations became like televangelists, praying the daily office in front of a camera, celebrating the Eucharist/Holy Communion at the altar in an empty church or chapel. Some parishes began to live-stream Mass every day with the lone priest in a church with a seating capacity of 500+.

Now televised worship has been with us for a long time. It is definitely a worthwhile alternative for the home-bound and infirm. While they cannot partake of the Body and Blood of Jesus, they can in good faith be united through spiritual communion. And I guess, in a way, we are now all forced into this category.

And truth be told, we were truly caught off guard by this little nasty bug happily galloping around the globe. And everyone was scrambling to find alternatives to the current restrictions on gathering and the need for social distance. Certainly a spirit of grace and mercy, coupled with permission to fumble and slip up, is the least we can afford one another.

There are indeed surprising aspects to the online worship development. The medium connects us with one another beyond time and place, providing an acute sense of the universal nature of our Christian faith. Physical and denominational boundaries collapse as we encounter the face of Christ in one another’s virtual devotions and inspirational messages. One of my colleagues wrote: Now that so many different churches are doing online prayer offices, I can dip into a Catholic morning prayer, a United mid-day prayer, a Lutheran evening prayer, and an Anglican Compline. And then I can mix it all up differently again the next day. (FB posting, March 19, 2020, by Rev. Scott Sharman)

But in the frenzy of live-streaming versions of the real thing, and while I’m all for the ecumenical gift exchange in prayer, I still hope that online worship doesn’t become the new normal. I hope we will not forget to ask ourselves what makes worship worship. What distinguishes worship from private prayer or watching someone else pray? As Christopher Smith wrote in a recent article: “Worship was never intended to be a religious product that is passively consumed.”* And what about the faithful parishioners without internet and social media? How do we include them in online worship?

Holy Communion, the Holy Eucharist, is an incarnational worship experience. The distinct features that nourish the soul and grow our faith lie in joining our voices in song and prayer, in our corporate confession and the words of absolution, in the sharing of insights from Scripture, each person hearing what s/he needs at that time, and the partaking in God’s holy meal of Christ’s body and blood. Or in the words of Paul to the church in Corinth: “What should be done then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.” (1 Cor. 14:26)

In other words worship, liturgy, is a corporate act, authenticated by the active engagement of the congregation, identified as the full, conscious and active participation of God’s holy people. The Greek word leitourgia originally means the public work of the people. If we lose sight of this, we risk cultivating a passive audience watching a spectator sport (with all due respect for the sincere efforts of clergy to sustain the spirit of the faithful as best they can). Recall Jesus’s words: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matt. 18:20) God is present with us as we are present to one another in prayer and conversation, in joint confession and forgiveness, in song and praise, in sharing Christ’s Body and Blood.

It remains to be seen how our churches will fare in this prolonged Lenten season of corporate fasting from public worship services. Once the worst of this health crisis is over and we will be allowed out of our places of self-isolation, just think how amazingly festive that first Holy Eucharist in the church will be. Like Christ rising from the grave, we will rise from our homes, shining like the sun, and singing for joy. Easter might come later than planned this year, but come it will: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:32-33)

* http://c-christopher-smith.com/churches-should-think-twice-before-webcasting-their-worship-service

  • This blog post was first published on the PrayTell Blog on March 28, 2020
  • For another reflection on the same subject, see this article in the AJ April 9, 2020

Global Retreat Time

There’s a peculiar sense of humour developing on social media in this time of global crisis. Most good humour not only causes belly laughs but can also carry important messages. That’s what I thought when I read the one where we sputter and complain to Mother Nature (or God) by saying that we cannot possibly stop the economy and share our wealth, reduce our carbon footprint and scale back our rampant consuming and exploiting of the world’s resources. To which Mother Nature (or God) responds: Here is a virus — practice.

Covid-19 has halted the entire world in its tracks. If we are among those who feel legislated to home-confinement, the first thing to realize is that we are among the fortunate few. For millions around the world, this is far from a home-based retreat with solitary walks in the park and surfing the net on the couch. As a doctor from India said recently: If you have a home to retreat to, you are privileged. If you have running water to wash your hands frequently, you are privileged. If you can work from home and be paid, you are privileged. If you can buy hand sanitizer, you are privileged. (FB post, date unknown).

The numbers of the sick and the dead are staggering and continue to rise. Families can’t even be with their loved ones as they suffer and die. Funerals are suspended. Millions are laid off due to the economic collapse caused by Covid-19. Health care workers are stressed beyond their emotional and professional capacity. Essential services personnel is panicking — they have to keep working, exposing themselves to transmission of Covid-19. People in refugee camps and homeless shelters can’t even consider the recommended social distancing or self-isolation. A mass-choir of weeping and wailing is circling the globe — cries of pain and loss, of anxiety and despair, cries of losing hope and courage.

So if we feel inconvenienced because Covid-19 has grounded our lives to a brutal halt, we need a serious reality check. If we are house-bound with or without kids, and if we still have a job, complaining would really sound like the whining of spoiled brats. House-bound and on retreat from the rat race, we can decide to make this a constructive time to learn important lessons about right living and loving.

There are those among us, often unnoticed in a frenzied, materialistic-driven culture, who have lots of experience with social distancing and self-isolation. Every religious tradition has monastic communities who practice silence and meditation on a daily basis; their guidance and advice is invaluable now and it is there for the taking. We all count persons in our circle of love who have undergone cancer treatments or other medical procedures which necessitated self-isolation for certain lengths of time. I think of a friend with cerebral palsy who spends most days in social isolation, because she has physical difficulty communicating even while her mental capacity is as sharp as any politician (well, a professor maybe). Part of the current upside down turmoil is that those who are not usually noticed and valued by society now have the most to teach us.

An elementary school teacher, Jenna has already seen way more health challenges in her young life than most of us will undergo in a lifetime. Social distancing and self-isolation became a way of life for her long before it was enforced by law. Jenna lives and breathes social isolation simply in order to keep herself safe and less sick than she needs to be. Jenna gave permission to share her story and her tips as a way to help others to live well in self-isolation, provided her identity remained concealed. So I changed her name. Jenna inspires me to living this legislated retreat in the best way I can so that it will bear fruit for the rest of my life. I hope you will join me in following in her footsteps:

A few years ago, because of some health issues, I was at home for the better part of a year. I saw people occasionally, but for the most part, I was social distancing like we are now with the exception of grocery shopping, church and a couple events with small groups of people. I was reacting to most people’s shampoo, deodorant, hairspray and other products, and would often have skin reactions if people touched me and were wearing a product or if they walked by too close and the scents came near me or my skin. Whenever my body had several severe reactions in a row I would need to self-isolate to be able to help my body’s reactions subside. Sometimes this would take a couple of weeks, or longer.

As someone who has spent a significant amount of time social distancing for various periods of time, I thought it might be helpful in this global health crisis to share some things that I have learned. This time around, I feel less anxious about social distancing. I am at home with myself, and I hope that you are too.

* VARY YOUR SCHEDULE – Do many different things to keep life full.

* LEARN SOMETHING NEW – I started watching gardening videos on YouTube and reading gardening books. I currently have 9 trays of seeds started in my basement. From a time of isolation came beauty, life, gift and a new found hobby. Five years ago, I knew nothing about gardening and now my yard is a beautiful oasis. It would not be this way without the gift of this time spent alone.

* LIMIT SCREEN TIME – Looking at a screen most of the day will make you feel tired and affect your mood. By all means, watch things but also take breaks. There can be too much of a good thing.

* GET SOME FRESH AIR – Get outside if you can. If you can’t, open a window and sit beside it for a while.

* TRY NEW RECIPES – Now is the time to find some new recipes that you love. 🙂 Yum.

* MAKE SOMETHING – If you have markers, draw. If you have paints, paint. If you have toothpicks, build. If you have a pen, write. If you have an instrument, play music. If you have seeds, plant. If you have clay, sculpt. Enjoy this time for creativity.

* DEAL WITH YOUR STUFF – Silence can bring up difficult things we didn’t know were within ourselves. Take the time to sit with things that come up. Reflect on them. Acknowledge your struggles, fears and joys. This isn’t being negative. It is being honest. Don’t dig for more things to work through, but as something comes up, give it your time and attention. Be gentle with yourself because this is a difficult time. You are going through a lot and a lot of things are coming up. Be gentle with others too.

* DO THINGS YOU NEVER HAVE TIME TO DO – Clean “that” cupboard. Catch up on chores. Read a book. Deep clean things. Organize. Declutter. Do some yard work. Clean out the shed. Have a nap. Journal. Pray. Listen to podcasts. Trim a tree (in your yard). Call a friend. Wash your hands 534 times a day. 🙂

* STAY IN TOUCH – Call a friend or two. FaceTime or Zoom if you can.
Check in with others, especially those who live alone.

* RATION YOUR SNACKS – A little treat everyday can be so uplifting.
Spread it out over time.

* PRAY – Bring things to God. He sees everything.

* WHEN YOU FEEL LOW OR DEPRESSED – Call a friend and talk to them.
Listen to music that calms you or makes you happy.

* JOURNAL – If you feel anxious or worried, write out your thoughts. If you are angry, type your thoughts. It helps to get things out faster and the motion of typing can be helpful if you feel angry. I like to write down three things a day that I am thankful for. It can be as small as … being able to walk, or popcorn.

* SPEND TIME IN NATURE – Nature helps us to feel calm. Open a window and listen to the birds. (I am right now ! 🙂 ) Put your hands in some dirt. Repot a plant or two. Spend time sitting and looking at plants or flowers or gently touch a couple leaves. (Only if the plant likes to be touched. Some plants prefer social distancing. 🙂 )

* EAT HEALTHY – You will feel better if you eat more whole foods.
Avoid eating tons of prepackaged food with preservatives.

* MAINTAIN PROPER HYGIENE – Take a relaxing bath or shower and take your time. Put on candles and soft music. Enjoy the experience.

* STICK TO DAILY ROUTINES – Yes. Even if you are not leaving the house. Wash your face. Do basic makeup. Wash your face and brush your teeth before bed. It will feel more like a regular day if you treat it like a regular day. Set a bed time and wake-up time and stick to it to the best of your ability.

* GET EXERCISE – Do something active — help your body to feel well.
Move, walk, stretch.

* WATCH or DO SOMETHING FUNNY – Get yourself in a good mood.

* HANG OUT WITH YOUR PET – What’s that, you say? You don’t have a pet? Me neither. I hang out with my plants. All 76 of them. (Yes, I actually have that many plants.) What is your pet?

* LIGHT CANDLES AND RELAX – Turn on those twinkle lights or that candle and just chill.

* OLD TUNES AND MOVIES – Listen to all your old CDs. Watch all your old favourite VHS or DVDs. Introduce your kids to classic Disney movies. If you don’t have kids… watch them anyway.

* CLEAN THE HOUSE THOROUGHLY – Goodbye germs.

* POST UPLIFTING THINGS ON SOCIAL MEDIA – Help fill those feeds with other things than the crisis at hand.

Here is a virus — practice.