Welcome back to the Internet!

Hello social media faster! Welcome back to your Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, and/or Wuphf! Now that you’re back, can we talk? I would have said something sooner…but I don’t have your number and while you were fasting I couldn’t DM you. See I heard you say a few things before you left to “get your Lent on” that concerned me. You said some nasty things about my friend, social media. So let’s clear the air and think about how you, me, and your apps can move past this. When you left you said that social media is a distraction, it’s a land of comparison and facades, it produces unhealthy communication, and is a toxic environment.

You thought you were talking about social media…but I think if we talk it through…you’re actually talking about yourself. You’re not talking about the medium, you’re talking about the way you interact with it. I’m worried that in giving up social media you thought you were ridding your life of those unhealthy behaviors. It might not be social media’s fault, but actually a product of your sinful heart. I’m using a lot of “you” statements here, so before you get really mad at me can I just say that in order to say this to you, I had to say it to myself first. I had to dive into the deep end of my own sin patterns and research social media’s created purpose. I took master’s courses in social media and even wrote my master’s thesis on how we use our social apps.

So this doesn’t come lightly, it comes with my own experience and my own heavy, convicted, and forgiven heart. It comes with a hope that you won’t come back from Lent with the same patterns repeating in your use of technology. It comes at the defense of my friend, social media, and my desire to redeem social networks to restore them to their good, created purpose. Let’s take a look at those things you said while looking into our hearts and dreaming about what your online community could be.

Connection

What were online social networks and the apps that manage them created for? Some may argue and lament over the possible created purpose of Snapchat, but in general why were most apps created? The internet made a lot of things possible and is arguably one of greatest technological advancements in the past century…maybe ever. It connects us all. Right now if you wanted to you could email, video chat, shop, create, game with someone on the literal opposite side of our planet.

Social Media

There are beautiful things that are happening right now in the world because of this connection. One of my favorites is the brain child of actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt. This star of 500 Days of Summer and, more recently, The Walk is the host of an online artist community called “Hit Record.” Using this social network, he brings together artistic collaborators from all over the globe to create music, film, books, poetry, cartoons, etc. So a skilled storyteller from Istanbul can post a story then a gifted animator from Albuquerque, NM can animate it while a master musician from South Africa scores the final product. As this process unfolds, connection brings creativity to life.  Think about 1 Corinthians 12, the body of Christ explained. All of a sudden this body is larger, and more diverse than a pre-internet world could even imagine.

Disconnection

What went wrong, though? Evidence of the fallen, broken world we live in is written all over our newsfeeds. Those things you said before you left, I feel them too. Our social apps can be a doorway to unhealthy distraction and temptation, comparison and discontentment, and anger towards the people you love. This last one maybe particularly relevant during an election year. These elements of social networking breed shame, guilt, jealousy, rage, and whole slew of other emotions that you haven’t seen adorably personified by Pixar. But are they produced by the network or the networker? More importantly, why and how are they produced by the networker?

In my research at Point Park University, I investigated how World Wrestling Entertainment has successfully stayed ahead of the game when it comes to social media marketing techniques. What I concluded was that they sought to create connections not to just deliver information. They understand that social media tools were created for interaction not promotion by itself. This is something a lot of companies fail to understand. Some companies, celebrities, even churches use their social platforms as nothing more than an internet bulletin board. WWE uses social tools effectively because they aren’t just saying, “Like me,” “Buy this,” “Subscribe!” They are saying, “You matter, let’s talk.” They create interactions and then social bonds between their wrestlers and their audience. Taylor Swift could also teach a class on this subject.

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Taylor Swift wrapping gifts to send to some of her social media fans!

What if we all saw social networking this way? Aren’t we all prone to the same self-promotive pitfalls many companies fall into with their social tools? Narcissism is the enemy of building effective social network communities. When your posts and interactions are just about you…what you’re doing, who you are…what actions, events, behaviors others can give you affirmation for, then that’s not community at all. That’s not connection at all. Tools that were designed for conversation and community have become pedestals and soap boxes.

Community

The quest for healthy use of social media tools is the quest for healthy community. To help us on this journey let’s think about these tools in two ways. First, social media allows us to be the recorders of history and of how we are interacting with creation, our passions, and God. One of my favorite Biblical authors is Luke. On top of being a doctor, Luke was somewhat of a meticulous recorder of facts…he was kind of doing what journalism is supposed to be. Historians say he followed Paul on his journeys making sure every fact was verified and recorded. Check out his reasoning for writing his gospel:

1 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, 2 just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, 3 it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” – Luke 1:1-4

If we think of our news feeds as a place where we can interact with and record life in this way, doesn’t that seem like a higher calling? Your tweets, posts, instas, and gifs can be signposts of the Lord at work. Whenever we click “share” it can be an opportunity to share the Gospel through our lives. Secondly, on top of seeing social networks as an arena for recording history, they can also be an arena to celebrate life. When we are interacting with each other’s lives sometimes it’s easy for things like arrogance, jealousy, and discontent to creep in, but if we see the realm of social media as a tool for celebration then we can be well on our way to combating those thoughts.

Celebrate the birth of a new child. Celebrate someone passing an exam or getting a new job. Celebrate someone’s love for funny cat videos. Celebrate popular culture. Celebrate conflicting ideas. Celebrate your offline community. Christ centered celebration of the lives of others can be incredibly life giving. If we take the joy out of our online communities, we may find ourselves losing the joy in our lives. “Like” with purpose. Believe the best in people that disagree with you. Write your happy birthdays not out of obligation but out of celebration. Follow trends to participate in the world. Add a few more people into your profile pic or selfies. Online community like any other kind of community works best when we look outside ourselves and focus on one another.

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Who invited them?

Sometimes other people are the worst. They can be annoying and hard to deal with, demanding when I’m busy and tired, stretching me when I don’t want to be stretched. But for some reason they’re everywhere, and Christ loves all of them, so as the Body of Christ we’re forced to figure out how to be together. Our first and best example of how to function as a community is the Trinity. They really are “the three best friends that anyone could have.” They always get one another, are always there for each other, always on the same page. What can we draw from their example to learn better ways of being in community?

Let’s think about the moment of Jesus’ baptism, the first time that we see the whole Trinity in the same place at the same time.

16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Matt. 3:16-17

First we see that their Triune community was a blessing and an encouragement. Jesus through the Incarnation is an ambassador of God’s glory and presence living and walking with humanity. As both fully God and fully human Jesus is an earthly extension of God among us. That experience had to have been lonely and isolating for him at times. None of the people around him could have understood his experience and what he was going through, and no one fully understood his power and authority. So at this moment of baptism the Spirit falls with fresh encouragement and fellowship, and God the Father affirms his identity as a Son with full authority.

And then secondly, what is the impact of their relationship? The Trinity’s community with one another results not only in a blessing to each other but in blessing to all people. Jesus doesn’t receive from the Spirit and the Father and then they just keep hanging out together indefinitely. Everything that they do as a community is for the purpose of bringing other people in. There is no self-serving element of their friendship and kinship, it is always flowing outward.

For those of you who are blessed with a good group of friends, you have felt the temptation to keep your group exactly the way it is. It takes intentionality and emotional energy to bring a new person into an established group, and we often avoid doing so because it can take work. Now there are definitely times when we need the rest and rejuvenation that comes from just being with a close friend or being alone. Jesus withdraws by himself to pray on a regular basis, when he does that he was recharging with his close community. But then he always comes back to welcome more new people. It’s a continuous cycle of receiving and sharing that never stops with just him.

friends

And here’s the crazy thing we learn from Jesus: sometimes community is wildly inconvenient. Sometimes we have to extend ourselves in uncomfortable ways in order to welcome other people, because we serve a God of hospitality. There’s no greater expression of inconvenient hospitality than the incarnation. Jesus left the comforts of heaven and pure divinity to join with the discomforts of earth and humanity. He could have just kept hanging out with his two best friends and their angel squad, but instead he became flesh and dwelt among us so that he could bring us back with him and reconcile us to God for eternity. Paul summarizes this powerfully in Ephesians 2:13-20

13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.

We don’t pursue close relationships so that we can be insulated in our perfect group and stay there. We invest in community to build each other up and to send each other out to welcome more brothers and sisters into the Body of Christ.

If you are in a season where you have been gifted with a strong group of friends and community, then rejoice in that as a beautiful reflection of God’s purposes for all of humanity. What you have now is a Kingdom glimpse of the New Jerusalem, a signpost of God’s ability to unite all peoples for all time. Like Jesus and the rest of the Trinity, don’t keep that to yourself. Look around you and pray for Christ to shape your heart into one of overflowing hospitality. Stay close to the One who brought you near when you were the one who was far off.

welcome mat

If you’re in a season of isolation, of anxiety over who in your life is trustworthy and genuine, don’t give up. You cannot give in to the temptation to withdraw behind masks and walls. Satan loves it when God’s children feel alone and he will do everything he can to tell you that no one cares about you and no one will ever love you for who you are. The truth is that every moment of every day, Jesus knows everything about you and always calls you friend. And what’s more, He died to bring you into eternal friendship with the Trinity and with the whole community of faith.

The truth is that you are never alone because God’s Spirit dwells inside you and you are always in communion with the great Three in One. With that assurance, keep trying to connect with Christian community. Strike up some awkward conversations and just see what happens. Think of some good questions that will help you get to know a potential new friend and start creating situations where others can get to know you too. It may take a while so keep praying for courage and patience. You were not meant to be alone, don’t be satisfied with fear and facades.

None of us can be the perfect friend and community member on our own. It requires risk and vulnerability, time and energy, love and sacrifice. Other people will hurt us and let us down, and we will do the same to them. Community is simultaneously very beautiful and very hard. But we do it because we’re all meant to be together. Every day we can extend ourselves to others in response to a God who breaks down all barriers in order to make us one.

community-social-media-success

Moses in “Zootopia”

11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” – Exodus 3:11

In the face of the new calling on his life, with God’s voice in his ears telling him exactly what to do, Moses takes full advantage of this personal conversation with the creator of the universe. “Who am I?,” Moses asks. This was probably a question Moses asked every day. We see the effects of a narrative Moses had been given throughout his life. The God of the universe is telling him he has been tapped for an incredible purpose and Moses’s first reaction is self-doubt.

Judy Hopps

You see Moses was a man caught between cultures, with a mishmash of an identity, carrying the weight of past failures. When God tells him he will be the deliverer of the Hebrew people Moses balks citing his lack of identity, lack of knowledge and spirituality, and lack of gifts and skill. Basically, Moses is asking what is the use in trying, Lord? I’m just Moses, a nobody, a murderer, a shepherd, and that’s all I’ll ever be. God’s answer is one that can carry even us through the deepest valleys of self-doubt, but before we get there…let’s go to Zootopia because in Disney Animation’s newest film that very same question is posed. What’s the use in trying?

Zootopia is a story with battling narratives. The narrative printed across the brand of Zootopia, a city where eons of predatory instincts in the animal kingdom have been squashed in the name of peace and prosperity, is that “You can be anything.” In reality, though, written on the faces of the older generation is a different narrative. “You can be anything…as long as it aligns with your zip code, species, gender, and place in the food chain.” No one whose worldview is based in reality would ever truly believe that first narrative. Enter a young Judy Hopps, a rabbit from a rural area that has bought into the brand of Zootopia.

ZOOTOPIA

Despite there never being a bunny cop, in the face of pressure from her parents to accept her fate as a carrot farmer, Judy remains a trier. The question of what’s the use in trying has never crossed her mind. Judy is a beacon of hope in the world of Zootopia because not only is the film her story, a story of trying, but it’s also the story of how the roads of this world are paved with the broken hearts of triers everywhere.

This fact is hidden behind the smiley façade of Judy’s parents and it is emotionally told through the life story of Nick Wilde, a sly con-fox, who fails to understand where Judy gets her optimism. With these characters in place we get to see the narratives of Zootopia played out from beginning to end.

ZOOTOPIA

In Judy’s parents we see the end of the story, a life lived believing reality says there are limits to what you can accomplish based on your class, species, and culture. In Nick, we see a character with a fresh break in his heart. We get to hear his story of trying only to have culture slap a muzzle on his predator snout. He even says at one point he’s stopped trying to be anything other than what other animals see him as. Then there is Judy who is in the midst of having her heart broken. We get to witness the process in action, the world beginning to break her down. It’s through these stories you start to realize Zootopia isn’t about animals at all…it’s about us.

Young Nick

Disney is the crew that brought us the line, “Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down in a most delightful way.” The sugar of Zootopia are the stunning graphics, adorable cartoon animals, self-aware jabs at Frozen, and the fun, pop beats of Shakira. The medicine is a hard look at the state of race/gender/class relations in America. These same narratives battling in Zootopia are at war in our reality every day.

The narrative painted across the brand of America is that racism is a non-issue, that we’ve moved past the dark marks on our history. You can be anything you want to be in America. There is a narrative at war with this, though, and we can see the effects in minority communities. Across the board, people of color are less likely to apply to top institutions even when academically qualified, less likely to choose fields with top starting salaries like STEM majors, and less likely to come into higher education prepared for academic differences between high school and college.

We are at most two generations removed from the civil rights movements of the 50’s and 60’s and our current minority communities are still lacking opportunities and environments to establish economic and academic success. This is a situation that is crying out for a different narrative. There is a moment in Zootopia where Judy breaks through the narrative Nick has built in his life. She tells him that he can be more, that his story isn’t over yet. This changes Nick’s life.

Nick and Judy

Recently, I attended the Jubilee Conference in Pittsburgh, and there I got to hear Dr. Brian Bantum, author of “Redeeming Mulatto: A Theology of Race and Christian Hybridity,” speak on diversity in higher education. His story is unique. Someone late into his academic career broke through the narrative of his life and told him that he had the knowledge and the gifts to become a PhD. And he did.

Dr. Bantum went on to say that had he not had professors of color, compassionate mentors, and others in his life guiding him, achieving the academic success that he has would have had to be a “pure act of imagination.” Without a different narrative he might have answered those encouraging him with doubts. He may have even asked them, “What’s the use in trying?” or even “Who am I to be a PhD?”

That leads us back to Moses and the answer he received to his doubts. Over and over again, in different ways, with different words God repeats to Moses, “I am God. You are mine. I will be with you.” Maybe you will never be whatever you want to be. My window of being the first astronaut to play electric guitar on Mars is closing more and more every second. There are some limitations to what we can accomplish but at the very least God tells us that we are all created in His image. We have the power to achieve amazing things in that image. We can flourish. In America, we really can’t be anything that we want to be, but no matter what your race, culture, or gender is you should have the opportunity to at least try.