Prayer and social media: An Anabaptist perspective

Posted Feb 26, 2013 | New Media Project


By Jim Rice

This is the second of a six-week Lenten series on prayer and social media.

Last week, a Mennonite pastor reported (in a face-to-face conversation, I might add) that she had recently gone off email, and presumably other social media, for three days, because “I was burned out.” After the break, she said, “I felt so much better going back to work after have three days off email.”

The season of Lent brings to stark relief a divide among Christians regarding social media. Many believers, from various branches of the church, “fast” from social media as one of their Lenten disciplines. (Examples abound; a few can be found here and here and here and here. There’s even a definition of “digital fast” in the Dictionary of Christianese.)

Other people of faith, however, make a clear case for “Why I’m not giving up Facebook for Lent,” arguing, as author Helen Lee does, “The whole purpose of Lent is to draw closer to God and to a deeper understanding of [God’s] purposes. Using Facebook is one key way that I see [God’s] hand at work in the world and in the lives of people I know.” For Lee, social media is a base, and a milieu, for her prayer life.

Many Mennonites who didn’t grow up with Lent—one of those “Catholic” things that Protestants often either ignored, misunderstood, disdained, or all of the above—now engage with the season as an opportunity to deepen their spiritual lives. “Laying down and taking up for Lent,” by Hannah Heinzekehr, whose Femonite blog “blends interests in Mennonite theology and faith and feminism,” is an insightful Mennonite reflection on the deeper meaning of Lenten fasts. The purpose of such fasts (I would add “of course” for Catholics and others for whom this is old news) isn’t just penitence, personal mortification, or certainly “proving our self control,” as Heinzekehr puts it. For her, the challenge is to take up a spiritual practice that helps her “just be”—with her daughter, with nature, with a work of art—and to be attentive to God’s word in that moment. In a word, to practice mindfulness.

“Discipline” and “presence” are two key themes in Christian spirituality. Often they are set up as conflicting values, as if our choice is either to be structured and disciplined in our prayer practices and our spiritual life in general, or simply to be “mindful” to God’s presence in the moment. At heart, though, spiritual disciplines—such as Lenten fasts, and a whole lot more—can provide a framework that nurtures a spirituality of presence.

Early Anabaptists—the 16th century reformers who are the forebears of Mennonites and other contemporary Christians—rejected structures and techniques as the primary basis for prayer. Instead, they offered their daily life as their prayer, in the place of particular methods or disciplines.

Miriam Frey, a Mennonite spiritual director in Waterloo, Ont., says that her Old Order Mennonite relatives have “an attitude that permeates their lifestyle, their worship, and their prayers.” Frey describes this attitude using the German mystical term “gelassenheit,” which means letting loose of oneself and indicates “a way of total dependence, humility, and trust before God,” according to the Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms.

That attitude of dependence on God is one of the lessons about prayer that come from the Mennonite tradition. Such an attitude requires humility, Freys says, and letting go of the need to control events and people—a vulnerability before God. Another key to genuine prayer and worship is to live with integrity, ensuring that all of life is “honest and healthy.” For centuries, she writes, “Mennonites have made their lifestyle their prayer.” Finally, Frey emphasizes the importance of attending to our relationship with God. For some, gardening will draw our attention to God; for others, it might be reading scripture or communing with nature. For all of us, paying regular attention is key: “As with any relationship, if we are committed to regular communication, eventually we become comfortable in our conversation,” Frey says. “If we approach God with humility, trust, integrity, and our full attention, we can expect God to abide in us.”

Of course, there is nothing uniquely Mennonite in that approach to prayer. From Catholic mystics such as Teresa of Avila and Thomas Merton to Taoist Chuang Tzu and Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh, spiritual writers in many traditions have pointed to the understanding that God (in the various ways God is understood) is present in the here and now, and thus when we are present to the moment, we are present to God.

What that says about social media, about digital fasting or not, is worth discussing. We should indeed ask ourselves serious questions about the Internet and our spiritual lives, about online connections and electronic distractions, about tools we use and the arenas in which we live our lives. But through it all, we should keep in mind that God is present in every part of it.

Jim Rice, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is editor of Sojourners magazine in Washington, D.C.

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