For once, I know what I’m giving up for Lent early this year: social media.
I’m writing this column the Monday morning following the annual Saskatchewan Mennonite Youth Organization’s senior-high retreat, at which, due to a new location, youth had cell service for the first time in the event’s recent history. As the organizer, I was concerned about the impact this change would have on the retreat. Would free time be spent on their phones rather than playing games? Would we have to put a phone-collection basket at the entrance to the chapel before sessions? Would the retreat lose the “get-away” feeling I have come to love it for?
As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. The youth committee that helps me plan and run the event made the decision to tell people to leave their phones in their rooms, and they led by example. And when phones were pulled out, it was to take pictures of the ice climbing wall or add background music to a fun coffeehouse act. Phones were used in ways that strengthened the weekend and made it better.
The recognition of needing a significant break from social media has been a long time coming for me, but it was heading home from the retreat that solidified my decision. Coming back from a beautiful weekend of inspiration and being the church, to a world of travel and refugee bans, to a world of a mosque shooting, to social media feeds full of outrage, grief, and reactions from around the world: It was too much. The tears flowed and there was nothing I could do to stop them. And that’s when I knew it was time to take a break.
This is not to say that I place any blame on social media or its users for the events that tear at my heart strings. Having friends and family spread across the continent, I am often indebted to social media for keeping me informed and connected. I also don’t want to simply disconnect myself from what’s going on in the world (I think). Now more than ever, the world needs disciples of peace and justice to come forward and offer another way.
But before I can log in and enter that world again, my heart needs a break. My heart needs to retreat and spend time in the palm of God’s hand.
I believe that social media can be used in ways that bring peace and make the world better. That, like the use of cell phones at the retreat, it can strengthen the ways we are already active in the world. And I have seen it done. I have watched in awe as social media warriors take injustice and hate to task, and bring healing and hope to the world.
As we enter into this Lenten season, may we find ways to be strengthened, to show mercy, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to welcome the stranger and to love our many neighbours.
Social media, I will see you again in April. I don’t know if absence will make the heart grow fonder, but I pray it will make the heart stronger.
Kirsten Hamm-Epp is the area church minister of youth programming and administration for Mennonite Church Saskatchewan.