As Lent approaches, and we start the yearly ritual of thinking of something new and significant to give up, I’m reminded of some experiences from recent years when my Lenten practices have had big impacts on my life.
A few years ago, during my second year of college, I made a very difficult decision. I chose to take a break from a dear friend. Go cold turkey on them for 40 (well, 46 days). No interaction, a black-out. Yes, I gave up Facebook. For a full 46 days — for Lent.
Any time someone checked to see my latest activity, they were greeted by this simple, yet effective message - "I'm Not On Facebook During Lent!" If they wanted me, they would have to call. Or email. Or visit. There were still plenty of ways to get in touch, but this was a big deal. If someone tagged an embarrassing photo of me, I wouldn’t find out until Easter Day. If an old friend messaged me, I would take a while to get back to them.
And it was touch and go for a while. Sometimes, I just wanted to send a friend a message, or wish someone a happy birthday. But I couldn’t. Well, I couldn’t with the ease with which Facebook allows. It was frustrating at times.
But it was also a very liberating experience. Unsurprisingly, my productivity dramatically improved, as I wasn’t checking how many people had ‘liked’ that I had written 500 words of an essay since the last time I had checked Facebook. I spent more time talking to people face-to-face, which meant having to plan my time more effectively. Leaving Facebook, even for that short amount of time, changed me and helped me to grow up a little bit.
Then last year, when Lent coincided with my final university exams and the writing of my undergraduate thesis, my housemate and I took it a step further. We unfriended each other on Facebook, unfollowed on Twitter. We had come to realize that the joy of spending time together is considerably diminished when most conversations include the sentence, “Oh yeah, I saw you posted that on Twitter.” Social media was making our friendship dull and predictable. It was taking all the fun out of being friends in real life.
And you know what? It was such a healthy experience. We talked more, listened to each other with anticipation and interest and continued to grow as friends. It wasn’t until I moved to the United States last August that we started following each other on Twitter again.
Stepping away from social media once in a while is healthy. Our bloggerina, Cathleen Falsani, is absolutely right in her recent post "Whenever Two or More or Gathered ... Online",  that social networks can be wonderful places through which to foster community. But they can also stifle community, if they are relied on too much.
There is a constant tension between what we gain in digital community and what might be lost in the "real world." It’s not always possible or practical, but “there is no substitute for personal presence” — wise words from our favorite Jesuit priest, the Rev. James Martin:
“Ten minutes in person”, Father Jim says, “is worth 10 hours on Facebook."
How many times have you suffered "buyer’s remors"’ after spending two hours on Facebook? You think to yourself, I could have made so much more of that time – I could have done something that mattered.
Beyond the opportunities and challenges of community (physical, spiritual or digital), Lent is a time of “introspection and soul-searching," when we “look hard at who we are, and who we aren’t," as Jim Meisner Jr. (who offered some great insight into why he’s giving up Facebook for Lent for us) so eloquently puts it.
Put this into the context of stepping away from social media for 40 (or 46) days. What questions do we ask ourselves when we want to know who we are, and who we aren’t? At the simplest level, maybe we’re asking the question," Who is in control?" My friend and the associate pastor of the church where I worship, Justin Fung, preached on this question a few weeks ago , and his comments came back to my mind as I wrote this post.
Consciously or not, when we recognize the need to step away from social media, it is because we are questioning who is in control.
If our default is to ask life’s big questions on Twitter before we offer them in prayer, then someone other than God is in control. If we "Like" what someone is doing of Facebook before we recognize everything God is doing in our lives, maybe we need a social media time-out.
Lent is the right time to realign ourselves with the fact that God should be in control in our lives.
And maybe, as the time that was spent on Facebook or Twitter (or if you’re a little behind the times, Myspace) is filled with new experiences of God and a deeper relationship with him, you’ll be in the same boat as Meisner — and “perhaps your Lenten fast won’t be much of a sacrifice after all.”
Jack Palmer is a communications assistant at Sojourners. Follow Jack on Twitter @JackPalmer88.