During Lent, we commemorate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. As if it were New Year’s Eve, most Christians make a Lenten resolution, consecrate it with prayer, and stick it out until Easter. Our concern for particularity in this moment, while laudable, can prevent us from grasping — and being grasped by — a broader sense of mission. The immediacy of figuring out, “What am I going to give up?” can prevent us from asking, “What sort of person is God calling me to be within the church and the world?” The first question pivots around our personal aspirations; the second one opens up a vista of service and mission. Developing the latter theme, we might approach Lent as an opportunity to embrace the care of Christ and emulate his ministry of coming alongside and caring for the least of these.
Embracing the care of Christ can be painful, for it often requires a prior admission that we are wounded. Many recent college graduates work hard to secure employment and repay loans, only to experience job loss, a reduction of responsibility, or another economic shift causing them to move back in with their parents. They are wounded. Some 222,000 veterans have returned from Iraq to a jobless recovery, a gridlocked Congress, and employers who cannot grasp the relevance of leadership skills honed in a military context. They, too, are wounded.
Our individual ailments differ, but we share an Augustinian solidarity. The bishop of Hippo suggests that we are Good Samaritans, called to love across differences of race, class, religion, and other social realities. Yet we are also recipients of God’s boundary-bursting, Samaritan love — Jesus found us by the side of the road, bandaged our wounds, and nursed us into wholeness by the power of his Holy Spirit.
As a community whose health has been and is being restored, Christ calls us to tend to the social ills of his people and all people. Matthew 25:31-46, in particular, underscores the importance of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting those who are in prison, and welcoming the stranger.
By caring with and for society’s most vulnerable members — Jesus calls them “the least of these” — we bear witness to the in-breaking of God’s kingdom in Christ. We embody his love by performing acts that immediately address the maladies of drug addiction, domestic violence, and chronic sickness. Moreover, our engagement in intermediate, systems-transforming work on behalf of the least of these — inmates, immigrants, gay and lesbian military personnel, and so on — testifies to the restorative justice of God’s kingdom in Christ.
Such care, whether personal or structural, does not itself build or establish God’s kingdom. To claim that it does collapses human initiative into divine work (making devils out of those who may oppose it for well-argued reasons) and, more dangerously, runs the risk of idolizing the stratification of power that enables such change (e.g., relief and development arms of denominations or national governments become sacrosanct instruments beyond critique). Our individual and collective care for “the least of these” represent necessary and yet feeble attempts to follow in the footsteps of our Lord who prioritized the marginalized in his ministry. Our call is not about politics, not about ideology, but about modeling the love and justice of Christ. Cornel West has famously remarked that, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” What does our Christian faith look like out on the street?
Lent reminds us that the church’s social service and justice-making efforts fall short of God’s glory, that our best attempts to repair the world are still broken, leading us to depend anew on the care of Christ. We are weak, but the consolations of our Lord are strong; through him we discover the strength to love, the power to carry on.
Is it time for Easter again? It doesn’t feel like Easter season. Easter (or Resurrection Sunday for the purists) is around the corner, and yet many Millennials feel little reason to celebrate. When I think of Easter, I think of special sermons, church presentations, fancy outfits, and big dinners. I also think of bunnies, eggs, and baskets thanks to corporate marketing. Ironically, what I don’t think about immediately is the Resurrection. But isn’t that the reason for the season?
For the past few years, social media campaigns have tried to remind people that Christmas is about Jesus’ birth. It has become so commercialized that people come out of the woodwork you didn’t even know were Christian. They remind everyone following them that Jesus is the reason for the season, that Jesus is the best gift we could get in the season, that Jesus wants us to give in this season, and that we should be content whether we get other gifts or not.
But Easter doesn’t have gift-giving traditions. Were it not for multi-colored chocolate eggs, most of us would not even think about what we receive on that holiday. But Easter is supposed to be the center of the Christian faith. Jesus goes to the Cross, dies for our sins, and resurrects with power, giving hope of salvation to all the earth.
Perhaps one of the reasons why Easter doesn’t immediately remind us of resurrection is because resurrection hope seems so far removed from our current situation. Current events in our world—from politics to protests, global warming to global injustice, doubt in our lives and doubt in our faith—have caused many to lose hope.
The Sweet By-and-By
It is hard to think about the hope of resurrection when we are surrounded by so much death. But that is exactly why we as Christians need to remember the Resurrection. What greater hope is there in the midst of a death culture than the revelation that death is not the end of the story? That our God loved us enough to take death on Himself and then overcame death itself?
Resurrection is not just about “the sweet-by and-by” either. We have to hold on to the promise of life after this life, but resurrection also comes when we hear the testimonies of those who are still living, still striving, still fighting, still hopeful despite facing ridiculous obstacles and even threats to their very lives.
Jesus gives new hope to a woman with an issue of blood who was treated as dead by society, and He not only wasn’t afraid of a man with a legion of demons, He set the man free and made him a missionary. Jesus is hope for resurrection in a world that needs new life.
Time to Remember
It could be because of Saint Patrick’s Day that takes place around the same time, so people are focused on Irish beer and clovers. It could be because we feel like we’ve heard the Easter sermon before, so we’ll catch it on livestream. It could be that you didn’t know Mardi Gras, Carnival, and Lent had anything to do with Easter, so it just isn’t in your mind.
It could be because no one you know buys Easter clothes, or because there will be no big dinner, or because you’ve got so many other things going on that you just forgot. But whatever the reason we weren’t thinking about the Resurrection yet for Easter, we should take time to remember it now.
It is the story of our salvation. It is the “right now” power of God. It is what we need to face today together.
The season of Lent is upon us. This is a holy season for Christians who seek to identify with Jesus Christ’s 40 days of fasting as he prepared to be tested and later crucified. In order to identify with Christ’s self-sacrifice, Christians often join in a symbolic fast, giving up certain foods such as meat or chocolate or even giving up certain practices.
In recent years, fasting from the internet or other forms of technology has become popular. Fasting from technology is encouraged by many religious leaders as the ideal way for individuals to reflect on their daily dependency on technology. Sometimes called taking a “digital Sabbath,” it refers to the Christian and Jewish practice, in which one day a week is set aside as sacred.
On such a day, secular practices such as using media are halted in order to help believers focus on God and their faith. This is based on the premise that the best way to critically engage with technology is to unplug from it. It’s a way to remember that true communication is unmediated by technology and grounded in being with one another in the “real world.”
Unplugging from social media or limiting one’s internet use for a set period such as during Lent can be helpful for some individuals. My research, conducted over two decades, however, shows that some of core assumptions on which digital fasting is based on can be problematic or misguided.
Technology can, in fact, be good for religion. The question is, how do we engage with technology thoughtfully and actively?
In my recent book, “Networked Theology,” my coauthor Stephen Garner and I discuss how some religious communities believe the media primarily promote immoral values and frivolous entertainment. Therefore, they insist interaction with media via digital devices should be controlled, just as is done during a digital fast.
In “Networked Theology,” we explain how abstaining from media is based on an assumption often referred to as “technological determinism.” It is a theory that argues media technology shapes how individuals in society think and act. Technology is presented as the central factor driving society, and its character is often described as selfish and dehumanizing.
This view presents the internet as a medium that creates environments that disconnect us from reality. For example, YouTube could be seen to promote entertainment culture over wisdom, Facebook encourages self-promotion over community-building and Twitter facilitates tweeting whatever comes to one’s mind rather than listening.
People are not passive users
The truth is digital media is increasingly a part of daily routines. People learn, do business and communicate with technology. Often technology enhances our daily lives, such as eyeglasses correcting vision or the telephone helping people communicate across time and space.
The problem, however, comes when we assume that people have only two options: to engage technology and inevitably be seduced by it, or refuse to use it in order to resist its power.
Digital fasting follows this second option. It presents individuals as slaves of technology. Taking the occasional timeout from the all-powerful grip of technology is done in order to simply regroup and prepare to again face its irresistible seduction.
In my view, such an approach places too much emphasis on the assertion that technological devices now dictate most people’s lives. It also does not take into account that technology users have the ability to make their own choices about how they approach it. So people can choose to use technology in ways that fulfill spiritual goals.
In “Networked Theology,” we argue that digital technology can be reshaped by users. As others have written, we agree that people should take more responsibility for the time spent with their devices.
Deepening devotion with technology
So, instead of resisting technology during Lent, individuals could use this space of holy reflection to actively consider how to integrate technology to support their spiritual development.
Religious groups have the ability to determine the culture technology promotes, if only they take time to prayerfully create their own “theology of technology.”
I describe part of this process as being “techno-selective.” What this means is reflecting on the technology we select and how and why we use it. It also means being proactive in shaping our technologies so they enhance and not distract from our spiritual journeys.
A digital Lent can become about considering how our devices can help us do justice, practice kindness and demonstrate humility in our world. For example, people could ask if their postings on Facebook are helping in creating a positive or more abusive world? Or, whether the apps they use or their cellphone etiquette promotes peace and social change?
Apps for social justice
In the last five years I have been working with a team of students at Texas A&M University to explore how social and mobile media are being developed that can support a variety of religious beliefs and practices. We found there are religious apps to help people do that. Internet memes also provide unique insights into common stereotypes about religion within popular culture.
Memes can be crafted to counter such misconceptions. For example, the wearing of hijabs, or headscarves, by Muslim women is viewed by many outside the religion as oppressive, but wearing the veil and modesty are themes frequently affirmed in memes created by Muslims.
Further, our research on religious mobile apps has found increasing numbers of apps are available that help individuals stay faithful in their religious practices on a daily basis. Apps can help with the reading of sacred texts, provide religious study aids, help locate kosher or halal products to maintain a holy lifestyle and connect people with places of worship and also to other beliefs.
Also apps designed to encourage involvement in social justice causes, such as TraffickStop, Lose Weight or Donate and CharityMiles, help raise awareness of key issues and even help users link their daily practices, such as what they eat, to micro-donations to social justice organizations.
A digital Lent?
Lent is a great time for religious individuals and groups to pause and consider not only their own technological practices and how they shape our world but also the ways in which digital resources can be integrated into their communities to support their beliefs.
So instead of giving up Facebook for Lent, consider doing Lent digitally.
Practicing 40 days of technoselectivity might actually have a longer-term impact socially and spiritually on one’s daily life. It could even deepen religious devotion.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the day which marks the beginning of Lent for many in the Christian tradition. Thereafter, for 40-plus days, many will observe a period of prayer, almsgiving, and fasting from things ranging from certain types of food and television to shopping and social media. The fasting portion of Lent is what most people focus on and what people abstain from usually depends on what it is they believe is hindering their relationship with God. Most aren’t afraid to share what they will abstain from for Lent, but Lenten waters are sometimes muddied by that sharing. It is as if Lent is the new black and it is fashionable to rattle off the list of things you are giving up in order to gain the esteem of your colleagues–Christian or not. Some critics of this approach have compared it to a “benchmark for righteousness.” Stories have been published ad nauseum about the so-called “Lent trap” and I’ve noticed that, increasingly, my social media news feed is filling up with people throwing symbolic punches by way of status updates aimed at those who decide to share what it is they are fasting from. Yet no one is free from the Lent trap, not the person who makes a list and shouts it twice or the person who chin checks the person who makes the list. In both cases, the people are being boastful either about what they are giving up or the fact that they have reached a pious peak that is above stooping to the perceived valleys of talking about what they will give up.
All of this conversation must be muted for the sake of upholding the sanctity and penitent nature of this upcoming season. A season where we are all faced with the same reminder, “Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return”(Genesis 3:19). And we are all told, “Repent, and believe the Gospel” (Mark 1:15). Whether you are one who proudly proclaims what you have given up for Lent or one who proclaims how Lent should be done in light of your revelation about the vanity of proclaiming what you will give up, the Ash Wednesday lectionary text teaches us all a lesson about the performance of piety.
Matthew 6:1-4 says,
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. “So whenever you give alms do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Here Jesus is contrasting the piety of the hypocrites to the piety rewarded by the Father in heaven. This piety is inward and requires the individual to do pious acts in private, which was not something the Pharisees were doing at the time. On the topic of almsgiving, Jesus warned his followers that they weren’t to alert the masses to giving alms by way of trumpet blowing, they were to give their alms in secret and their heavenly Father, who sees in secret, will reward them. In the same way, we are called to such a quietness in service so as not to draw attention to ourselves but to draw attention to God. This scripture also introduces us to two phrases that will repeat two more times throughout Ash Wednesday’s text, “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.” And “…your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Jesus continues by talking about prayer. Of this he says,
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:5-6, NRSV).
Again Jesus warns of doing pious acts in the public eye and reminds followers that their Father “who is in secret and sees in secret will reward” them. In the case of prayer, followers are not to stand in the public places where they can be seen nor should they “heap up empty phrases as Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.” Instead he tells them to pray the prayer that we have come to know as the Lord’s Prayer. In this way there is no room for bloviating, only God-oriented thanksgiving and petition. This concern about prayer turns the act from outward posturing to inward connection.
Matthew 6:16-18, is the linchpin of the Lenten season, in it Jesus says,
“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18, NRSV).
At once this scripture appears to contradict the spirit of the Lenten season. It seems to go against remembering mortality, humility, and penitence in exchange for putting on a happy face. But it isn’t a contradiction. Actually, the text focuses on three of the several disciplines of Lent; almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. In this particular text, Jesus is encouraging followers to let none be the wiser when they are fasting. By telling his followers not to look dismal or disfigure their faces he is telling them not to draw attention to themselves. They are supposed to keep the same countenance as if they weren’t fasting and let the act be about what is going on inside of them, not what they display on the outside. We too can learn from this teaching during this season, the lesson being that what we choose to fast from or how we choose to observe Lent in general is not something we proclaim to the masses lest we miss the point.
In Psalm 51, David gives us further direction about our posture during this season when he says, “You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” Again we are faced with the secret nature of our search for God which is connected to our inward being and caring for our inward selves. Our participation in Lent is for our relationship with God “the Father who is in secret and who sees in secret.” What we choose to do is between God and us and need not be shared. Granted, we can find accountability when we share what we are abstaining from with a close circle of friends, but what we choose to do in this season is really no one’s business but our own and God’s.
By keeping our lists secret or keeping our judgement secret from those who announce their lists we open ourselves all the more to what God wants to do in our lives during this season. In doing this we open ourselves to God’s reward and that is the point of it all.
Do you participate in Lent? What does this period of reflection and sacrifice mean to you? Share your thoughts below.
Here’s an idea for Lent that will do more good than giving up desserts: Read a book about contemporary sub-Saharan Africa. It’s not a penance, though it can hurt. And seeing how much of the rest of the world lives sure does put a lot of our minor irritations, and even major problems, in perspective.
Consider reading a novel or memoir by an African author, such as …