On Wednesday I led our 2pm SLT service as Gareth was not available. I took the opportunity to share some thoughts on whether we can actually do as Paul tells us and ‘rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn’ if we are online Christians. Below you can read my reflection which I then adapted as a blog post for The Big Bible Project’s blog which I write for bi-monthly.
The readings in the service were Psalm 30, Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 5:1-12.
For some time now I have been writing a blog post for the Big Bible Project’s Digidisciples section. I write every second month on 30th of the month and I am due to deliver a post for Friday. I’d like to share some of my thoughts with you that I shall be putting into that blog post.
As it says on the blog : a digidisciple is someone who seeks to live out their Biblically-informed Christian faith in the digital space. Those of us writing in that category are asked to write ‘posts engaging with debates about what it means to be a disciple in the digital spaces/age’. Each month also has a theme, this month’s being ‘serendipity’ or God-incidences.
As many of you know, my father died recently. The experience of being bereaved has set me thinking about all sorts of things. One is whether in the digital spaces of Facebook, Twitter, Google Groups, Skype, Second Life and so on, we can genuinely do as Paul told us and ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep’ (or ‘mourn with those who mourn’ as the New International Version translates it). If we can’t follow Paul’s advice for being authentic Christians online, are we wrong to even be here, claiming to be Christians in SL?
In my relatively short time as a digidisciple (about seven and a half years) I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in friendships with many people online. Some of that has been purely fun – chat about all sorts of topics, often rather silly chat. Other conversations have been of a more pastoral nature, ‘listening’ in voice, text-chat or by forum posts to the deep needs and hurts of one another. Yet further interaction has been the experience of shared prayer and worship either in text or voice.
I’ve noticed that when people share their concerns or prayer requests, these are remembered. The person who shared is followed up and asked how things are going; the prayer request is offered regularly, often by several different people. This suggests to me that the online world is not a shallow place of playing games, but a place where substantial connections are made between real people, albeit mediated in some way.
From early in the year, the groups which meet for Morning and Evening Prayer have prayed often for one of our members who was looking for a job. When news of a possible job was shared there was excitement and interest in the group. Even when the process dragged on for months, prayers and solicitous questions continued and words of encouragement were shared. Eventually the day dawned when we heard that the job was actually secured. I have no doubt that the joyful words typed and spoken were a genuine celebration of another’s good fortune. That journey to a job was our journey together, not just that of one person alone. I believe we really did rejoice with one who was rejoicing.
When I knew that my father was in his last few weeks of life, I was aware of many prayers being said for him and for all of my family. Those prayers started in SL with the prayer team and I know they continued when I was away as a team member on a Cursillo weekend during my father’s last days. My being out of sight didn’t mean I was out of mind or out of prayers. At that point the prayers continued from those on the weekend with me, so that both offline and online prayers were being offered. The two worlds overlapped.
When my father had died, I informed this community, my Facebook friends, my friends in Wakefield Anglican Cursillo and my RL priest. Without my online connections I could never have received so many wonderful messages of sympathy which really carried me through the first days. I received Skype messages, emails, SMS messages, Facebook comments, IMs in SL, posts on a forum, ecards and the old-fashioned paper variety. Those who sent the cards mostly heard the news online. I would never have troubled most of them by ringing them or writing to them and that would have meant missing out on something I really needed. Most of these people I shall never meet but I believe they genuinely mourned with me.
As I said at the beginning the theme for the month of digidisciples posts is serendipity. I believe I experienced a very valuable God-incidence and it reminded me of the limitations of online friendships. A friend from SL was staying at my home when my father died. I felt sad that his visit was being overshadowed by this bad news although obviously there was nothing I could do to change things. Actually, far from being the wrong time to have a friend with me, it was the perfect time. We have a deep friendship and have shared many of our hopes and fears in our online conversations. That online friendship translated seamlessly into an offline friendship. The openness of our sharing online meant that, freed of the limitation of conveying everything in words or smileys as we have to online, it was enough to make eye contact or to share a hug to say what needed to be said. I have no doubt I would have received lots of support and sympathy from my friend even if we had only been able to meet online, but offline was so much better. Having someone there who was not a family member was helpful also.
This reminded me of an occasion some years ago when the limitations of online friendships became glaringly apparent. A friend shared in a chatroom some very difficult news with two of us. After those words appeared on the screen I was so stunned and so much wanted to say the right thing that I didn’t type anything for some time, nor did the other person there. That left our friend to think that somehow she had shocked us and alienated us. We overcame the problem of course, but had we been face to face our expressions and a hug would have said all we needed to say. As it was, we were frustrated and hampered by the limitations of the medium, trying to put into words something that nearly defeated our ability to express ourselves.
Something I am finding very positive about my many online friendships at this time is the opportunity for ‘bumping into’ people and having really helpful conversations. Friends have shared their experiences of bereavement, they’ve given me their time, they’ve encouraged me. I know offline friends would do the same but there are not the same chances to have impromptu conversations with them. God-incidences are happening all the time online as God guides me to chat to the right person, at exactly the right time for me and I am very grateful. I agree with what Jesus said: Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.
So where have my thoughts led me? In my experience it really is possible to show the signs of authentic Christianity online, including rejoicing with those who rejoice and mourning with those who mourn. There are advantages to being connected with other Christians online and there are limitations. For myself, I think I would be worse off if I was deprived of either online or offline fellowship with Christians, at this and any other time. Of course, I might just have been lucky in my experiences and you may disagree with me. I think we need both worlds and I am grateful I have them both including this wonderful community here on Epiphany.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor