03 March 2009

A Friendly Fast

By Raedorah C. Stewart, Inquirer – Presbytery of the Pacific

The neologism ‘Social Networking’ describes the cultural phenomena of FaceBook, MySpace, LinkedIn, DownLink, Tagged, and Twitter. The evolution of virtual communities which hosted special interest conversation threads, social networking has successfully combined the best of all virtual worlds. Members of social networking sites can post live feeds of their daily lives and thoughts, photo albums, videos (homemade or downloaded), thought provoking notes, frivolous nemes, and a vast collection of third-party applications to exchange virtual compliments, virtual hugs, virtual coffee breaks, and virtual pillow fights.

Once becoming a member of a social network, one invites ‘friends’ to join their network. These friends can be found with a single mouse click which dispatches a cyber spider to invite all of the people in your email to become your social network friend. Or, one might discover a high school friend, long lost friend, or friendly colleague in someone else’s network and invite them to become your friend in your network also. In making friends or collecting friends, one’s own friends can even suggest friends for you.

Friends. An honor which some conclude has been diminished by the frivolous use of the word in collecting contacts in this age of social networking. Friends. What happened to meeting a person face-to-face and choosing to share life’s journey as friends? What happened to friends being people who help you move, babysit on date night, or hold your hand in the emergency room? What happened to the honor of being a friend and privilege of having a friend share life’s ups and downs, triumphs and tragedies? Making virtual friends is no substitute for being your authentic self in the company of one equally vulnerable.

In this Lenten season, Jesus, our Friend, calls us to do more than give up meat or sweets or television as an historical sacrifice and spiritual discipline. Perhaps we should consider during this fast to give up all forms of shallow friendship for the power of real friendship. The kind of friendship spoken of in John 15:13 – “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” Understanding that love is a verb – an action word – I doubt that the depth of love which is life sacrificial for one’s friends could be demonstrated apart from being present, truly present, in one another’s lives. A presence which causes glib status updates and random nemes to pale in comparison.

This Lent, listen for Spirit to compel you to give up the convenience of befriending and tending cyber friendships. Instead, allow Spirit to guide you to show up in the lives of friends and lay down the busy-ness in your life to host friends in your home. The ones for whom Jesus would lay down His life were those who not only believed in Him, but those who believed Jesus to be a friend and brother having spent time, trials and triumphs together.

As much as social networking is good in moderation, it is no substitute for knowing and being intimately known by one called friend.

On the other hand, as a user of three of the most popular social networks, I have experienced spiritual delight in meeting others who worship God, believe Jesus, and are guided by Spirit. On one, I maintain a prayer request box and light virtual candles for those requesting prayer. On another, I am job searching as a religious professional. Through the third one, I am participating in the Daniel Fast during Lent this year. A virtual friend, having never met the fellow in person, invested quite a bit of time in planning and promoting the Daniel Fast. Using biblical historical data, healthy living facts, and modeling daily accountability between himself and the rest of us participants, the Daniel Fast has challenged my critique of social networking for being and making friends.

With these in the household of faith, social networking feels a lot like receiving a letter from an apostle on a missionary journey in a faraway place. What we have in common is love of God and the people of God. As much as we are brothers and sisters in Christ and Creation, there is a deeper connectedness among those who show up in this space during Lent. There is even greater joy that when ministry or life calls us to travel, we take time to meet, giving presence to faces where Spirit has prepared us to be friends.

This Lent, can we hear more clearly that Jesus calls us to lay down the vapid intent of collecting friends on FaceBook (or other social networking sites) to be authentically friendly and become friends face-to-face?

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