I was hungry, lonely and tired when I stepped off the train at Convent Station in New Jersey back in 2010. I had just spent the better part of a day driving, parking, checking luggage, flying and chugging to this corner of the Garden State. I still had to drag my wobbly luggage to the lodging arranged for me by Drew Seminary and I was running late and expected to miss the appointed dinner hour.
By the time I reached the Sisters of Mercy convent, I could see the last of dinner just being put away in the nearby dining hall. I apologized for my late arrival and said I would head up to my room for the night. Sister Margaret, or was it Mary, asked if I had eaten dinner yet. “No ma’am, I know I’ve come after dinner service and I have some things to eat in my bag.” Looking at my sorely battered luggage, she suggested I make a plate from what was left on the buffet. Again I apologized for my tardiness, “no ma’am, but thank you, I’m late and don’t want to be a bother.” To which she gently but firmly replied, “may I please make you a plate?” Letting my exhaustion catch up with me, I gratefully relented and said “yes ma’am.”
Sister Mary, or was it Margaret, showed me to the remains of the dinner and invited me to help myself to whatever I liked. She left me to attend to her own evening business and I settled at my table to let the day’s travel fall from my shoulders in the quiet shuffling and tinkling of a dining room being packed up for the night.
While at the table my thoughts turned to what I thought was the purpose of my visit. The savvy powerpoint was ready, the tightly crafted script was well rehearsed and with passionate conviction I was ready to share with local clergy why they needed social media.
Just six months or so before this evening I had taken the job, answered a calling right out of a southern seminary, to be the digital circuit rider for a progressive Christian organization whose mission it was to equip motivated clergy to growing communities committed to actively living the Beatitudes. I’d found that rare overlap in a life’s venn diagram where my passion and (a tiny fraction of) the world’s needs came together as gainful employment. Skilled in technology, called to ministry, my professors and colleagues had encouraged this unique blend and I had, by this time, been leading various iterations of online ministry for a few years.
So weary in body, but intellectually full of vim and vigor, I sat with my wilting plate of salad and glass of tepid water and looked at my immediate surroundings. Here I was, ready to stand before a room full of clery to tell then why they needed social media and I thought, what would I tell the sisters purposefully working around me, about why would they need social media? And suddenly my entire script fell apart.
They don’t need social media. Social media needs them!
That night I rewrote my entire script, reworked all my slides and what I told the gathered clergy and seminary students the next day was exactly what I’ve told you here so far, and – what social media needs is the simple but radical hospitality that I experienced the night before. On the digital landscape, then, and good Lord all the more now, the dominating feature seems to be pain, anger, hatefulness and abuse. Just imagine if we can turn that tide by being present as bearers of love, light, hopefulness and healing.
I told them, and dozens of rooms like them after that, about what drove me to create online communities of faith in the first place – the conviction that it is untenable to abdicate the conversation to the media moguls of the religious right. I still believe that a unique window has opened in the history of humanity where the theological power brokers are no longer in control of the message. The voiceless have a voice.
Good grief, why is a post titled “social media sabbatical” burning so many pixels on the importance of social media? Because I want y’all to know that I’ve thought long and hard, prayed a bit too, about my decision to step away from social media for a full year.
I’ve spent the better part of a decade creating digital spaces where I tried to share the gospel of Jesus to the best of my understanding and ability. From a fully functioning church in Second Life to weekly contemplative practices in streaming spaces and a blog about being queer and Christian in America, I’ve been called to social media ministry in some form or fashion for quite a while.
While living into that call, I’ve spent A LOT of time in two, or three or a dozen mental places at once with my attention flickering from one tab, one device, to another. As a result, I am not always fully present in any given space, least of all where my body actually is at the moment, and I end up feeling increasingly physically anxious or psychologically exhausted after being online.
In recent months I’ve recalled the Sisters of Mercy and their quiet, cloistered life. The simplicity of attending to daily routines in community, fully present to one another and the still small voice of God, without the pernicious prattle of popular media.
As a result, I’m craving more and more time away from screens. Whether it’s playing board games with B, working on terrariums with friends, piddling for hours with a paper collage, marvelling over my wonky embroidered mushrooms or walking alone in wooded parks, every cell in my body is telling me it’s time for a digital detox.
So, on March 6, the day I begin my 51st tour around the sun, I will be stepping away from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the seemingly endless blogosphere in search for a full year. What I hope to cultivate is more depth and peace in my local life.
I pray that those of you still out here will be the light and love the world so needs right now. I’ll see you in 2021.
Be excellent to one another.