Giving up for Lent

It’s Ash Wednesday. Last night, a flurry of status updates marked the annual Exodus of Christians from Twitter and Facebook. And I was cross.

Give up chocolate, give up TV, give up reading the comments sections below Daily Mail articles, but don’t give up social media.

Because we consume those things, but we don’t consume twitter. Other people’s lives and our interaction with them isn’t a commodity to be cast aside when we deem that they take up too much of our time. It is, or should be, mutually giving, a place where we share something of ourselves, and influence the online culture around us. During Lent, Facebook gets markedly more mean. The self-righteousness with which Christians are happy to say “all that time I’ve been supporting people whose statuses send up warning flags, act as an arbiter in hurtful wall discussions, or just say something kind about the kids of a struggling young mum, that was all a waste – I’m off to do significant and holy things now.” The fragrance of Jesus is notable by its absence, and in its place, profile photos are changed to crosses.

One of my most supportive friends is a lady I know only through twitter. Her child is profoundly disabled, so she gets the frustrations of daily life, the pain, the drugs, the attitude of doctors, and I like to think I understand her too. It’s not an intense friendship, but the constant stream of two-way support and affirmation every day or so makes our lives more bearable. On this, the first housebound day when I know she’s not on twitter to listen, I feel a sense of loss.

Social media is a virtual space, but the human interactions are real. The relationships are real. The impression that people give, when you see them throughout their day, shows a picture of their character that is different from what you’d see in conventional, face-to-face interaction, but is nevertheless a window into their character and aspirations. Through twitter I’ve met friends across the globe, some with whom I share very little in common, and others who have surprised me with our similarity in outlook. It takes the power of storytelling away from corporate mass media, and puts it in the voices of ordinary people.

If anything, we should, in Lent, look to be more present to our online community, pray for it, look to serve it, and be present and authentic in a new way. It’s not a corrupt and oppressive Egypt we’re fleeing for a promised land of digital isolation.

Sunday

It’s normal for me to spend the whole weekend saving up the energy to go to church on Sunday. This weekend I did just that, spending an agonising and isolated Saturday too sick to get up, to do anything, even call anyone. I was withdrawn, quiet, shy, I felt cut off from what everyone else was enjoying. But when Sunday came…

“Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.” was the verse shared from the front. God doesn’t care that my body twitches, aches, fails at a lot of things and is not the socially accepted norm. I just need to be ready to do what He calls me to, and my body pleases him. This acceptance is amazing. During the lunchtime seminar, I spent much of the time sat on the floor sorting out my back pain, but this didn’t bother the speaker. To him, disability is not the only part of my identity; he’s able to hold in tension both the concept that I’m weak and in pain, but also that I’m irritatingly over-keen and loud in seminars. Kid gloves around my illness don’t prevent him from shutting me up.

I can get so used to the habitual isolation that I don’t know what to say – the simplest question stalls me. In comparison to Saturday’s silence, Sunday was awash with conversation, small talk, smiles. Even before I arrived, I bumped into someone who knew me by name. Then I had tea with three other people, who cared about what I’d been up to.  And others afterwards. Comparisons of the CofE and MoJ governance structures and their agility, muscle pain advice (I am so knowledgeable…), the near-overwhelming desire to swim in the tank with the fish. (I met a toddler and his parents; the toddler was entirely unawkward around my wheelchair, so his parents were too.)

This week I’d come off the welcome team rota, because I felt it was the right thing to do, despite my guilt. And the opportunity arose, when I would have ordinarily been in the team meeting, to have coffee with two women who are exploring faith, and who’d been to the same seminar as me. An hour or more of puzzling through questions together, sharing stories of our faith journeys, and getting to know two thoroughly lovely people who I’ll see again. I may not have the stamina for any of the official jobs, but God’s opening up ways I can welcome, befriend, and use the theological training I’ve had to good effect.

In the second service, I braved the stairs and sat beside one of my closest friends. We’re in an accountability group together, so despite not knowing her long, I know her well. Without having to say anything, just the physical closeness of sitting next to someone after so long completely alone is a comfort. When the light triggered my leg spasms, she wasn’t alarmed. When she spoke to a new person after the service, she knew to check if I was too tired to meet someone rather than go ahead and make the introduction. There are a few people now who know me well enough that my myriad symptoms don’t surprise them – it’s healing to be around them.

Prayer ministry felt safe, for the first time in forever. The prayer for healing that I didn’t ask for (which is inevitable if you’re visibly sick) came with questions about what I felt God was doing, what a new opportunity or hope might look like. She listened when I talked about how I experienced healing in the non-medical sense. Asked if there was anything she could do. I felt respected and cared for. We’re standing together wondering at God’s purpose in all of this, and she was content not to push for a simple explanation. There are still trust issues that I’ll eventually break through around being prayed for, but to have a positive experience was very welcome.

I’ve had a tough couple of months, and after the service I was able to talk to a friend at some length. Isolation seems to fill my heart with many sentences formed but left unsaid. I know myself, I know how and why I am struggling, I can see how each thought has originated and snowballed. But all the self-comprehension in the world doesn’t make it less tough; to articulate the core frustrations of my life to someone who’ll listen without pitying, ask in order to understand not to belittle, and who’s tactful enough to keep concepts abstract and avoid prying, that’s what eases the burden. I can carry it, but I do need somebody else to understand how heavy it is.

I’ve shared this, I think, because it’s easy to lose sight of Sunday in the pain and isolation of housebound days. I know that people care, even if they aren’t showing it on weekdays when I’m sick in bed and they’re in the office. And I’m not convinced that church is just about unbelievers coming to faith, but the whole family of God living in a way that redeems and transforms a broken life and sustains and strengthens it to return to the fight.