Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Beyond chocolate: How about giving up Facebook for Lent?

Editor's Note: Here's the text of the article, published on Feb. 20, 2010, by the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, that I got interviewed for. It talks about the Facebook Friday Fast that some of us are trying.

By Christie Storm

LITTLE ROCK — When Troy Thomas realized he was spending too much time on Facebook he decided to give up it up - at least temporarily. The United Methodist pastor will be avoiding the social networking site during the 40 days of Lent, which began this week on Ash Wednesday.

“Sometimes I check it three or four times a day when I have blank spots in my schedule,” Thomas said. “I recognize I’m depending on it too much.”

Lent has traditionally been a season of penitence as well as a time of spiritual preparation leading up to Easter, and fasting in one form or another is a common practice. Some Christians will follow a strict fast and partake of only liquids, while others prefer to give up a favorite treat or activity.

Thomas decided this was the year for a Facebook fast.

“I decided to re-center my focus on something that’s more godly during Lent,” he said.

Thomas serves the congregations of Parkers Chapel and Pleasant Grove United Methodist churches near El Dorado. Neither congregation has a Facebook page, so abstaining from the site won’t hamper his ability to keep in touch with church members. He’ll simply have to avoid logging onto his own page, except on Sundays, which aren’t counted as part of Lent.

“This a good thing for me. I’m going to enjoy this,” Thomas said. “Anything that distracts us from God is problematic if we are obsessed with it.”

Not that Thomas has anything against Facebook. He simply believes Lent should be about his relationship with God, he said.

“It’s all about balance and truly being connected with God and being in celebration of the fact that we do have salvation and we do have hope,” he said. “That’s very awesome to me.”

Some United Methodist youth directors are also embracing the idea of a modern fast from technology such as texting or social networking, although their students aren’t quite as excited about the idea.

Amanda Edgar’s suggestion to abstain from texting was met with groans from students at Farmington United Methodist Church.

“They have all these reasons why they can’t do it,” she said.

Edgar, the church’s youth director, said the idea for a Facebook fast came about after a student said he couldn’t go on a summer mission trip because he wouldn’t have access to the Internet.

“He said, ‘I can’t go without it,’ and that got me thinking that a lot of people do go without the Internet,” Edgar said, adding that Lent offers an opening to talk about how much the students possess, compared with other children around the world. “I try to bring it up in my lessons regularly with them.

You could do without. We’re still working on it.”

Edgar said she especially likes the idea of giving up Facebook for a while so the children can focus more on interpersonal relationships face to face.

“When all we do is send these brief texts or posts we don’t get the nuance of talking to someone and reading their reaction, and we don’t get the same depth of self-disclosure when we talk over the computer,” she said. “I hope if they give up texting or Facebook that will encourage them to pick upthe phone, maybe go over to their house. We’ve lost a lot of that personal time we used to have.”

Edgar is encouraging the group to fast for one week instead of the entire Lenten season and she’s hoping adults in the congregation will join them as a way to support the youths.

“They really do think it’s impossible, so if the adults around them can do it that’s good for them to see,” she said.

Kaylea Hutson, minister to families with children at First United Methodist Church in Siloam Springs, challenged her students to a Facebook Friday Fast. They even made a logo to post on their Facebook pages to alert friends of the weekly fast, which begins on Thursday evenings and ends on Saturday mornings.

“I don’t know if it will work,” Hutson said, adding that some students thought the idea was crazy. “They said, ‘Friday is when everyone’s on!’”

Hutson manages the church’s Facebook page and also has her own personal account. She doesn’t work on Fridays, so staying off the church page for one day a week won’t be too difficult. Avoiding her own page will be much harder, she said, especially since she has access to the Internet through her iPhone.

“I want to see if I can do it. I don’t know if I can,” she said. “I check it every day -lots. I check it about as much as I check my e-mail.”

Hutson said she likes the sense of community Facebook provides, as well as the ability to stay connected with friends all over the world. But she says the constant posting can be time-consuming. She doesn’t want to give up Facebook permanently, but does relish the chance to completely “unplug.”

“I think it can be a distraction, where sometimes you are so busy updating your life on Facebook you don’t live your life in person,” Hutson said. “I’m hoping it makes one less distraction in my life ... I might find out I don’t have to be on it 24/7.”

Hutson said the students decided to fast one day a week instead of the entire season in hopes that they will succeed.

“I think it will be harder than if they gave up soda or chocolate,” she said. “I’m not sure any of us knows how hard this will be, but I think it will be good.”

Eschewing texting, social networking and other technology isn’t the only modern twist to fasting. Many churches are encouraging their members to be better stewards of God’s creation by participating in “carbon fasts” this year. The idea is to follow energy-saving tips that ideally will become a part of daily life.

Sherry Joyce is coordinating the effort at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Little Rock. Members were encouraged to sign pledge cards listing their Lenten commitments. The cards included various options, from “saying no to bottled water” to lowering the thermostat at home by three degrees or observing one “silent” day a week without using a cell phone or watching television.

“A lot of people in our congregation normally give up something for Lent, so we decided this year we would offer them the option of taking an action that would deepen their Lenten service and at the same time care for God’s creation,” Joyce said.

The church has a “green team” and caring for the earth is an important part of the ethos of the congregation.

“It’s a very strong, biblical call that we care for the creation God has placed us in and we’ve not been good stewards - not out of any malicious intent, but we are realizing some of the ways we’ve structured our lifestyle is damaging to God’s creation and to me, that’s sin,” Joyce said.

In addition to the pledge cards, members can also follow suggestions on the “Tread Lightly for Lent” calendar provided by the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. The calendar offers daily ideas for saving energy and caring for the planet. It’s available at pcusa.org/environment.

The Gaia Guild at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fayetteville is promoting a carbon fast, too. Kay Duval, one of the guild leaders, will contribute daily and weekly ideas in the church bulletin and the group will be installing a recycling station in thechurch’s welcome center.

Duval said the bin is for items that can be re-used, including cell phones and inkjet cartridges, as well as used eyeglasses. Items that shouldn’t be disposed of in household trash, such as flashlight batteries, will also be collected.

“All in all, we’ll be encouraging positive acts during Lent, as opposed to the old idea of denial of favorite things,” Duval said.

Information will be available online at stpaulsfay. org.

Members of Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church are also being encouraged to participate in a carbon fast.

“For us it’s to increase awareness,” said Scharmel Roussel, who also serves as a staff liaison for Arkansas Interfaith Power and Light and the Arkansas Green Faith Alliance. Both organizations are dedicated to promoting sustainability and environmental stewardship.

Roussel is posting daily suggestions on the church’s Web site and also on the Arkansas Interfaith Power and Light site. Ash Wednesday’s suggestion was to remove one light bulb and live without it for the duration of Lent and to replace three frequently used bulbs with more energy-efficient compact fluorescent ones. Other suggestions include weatherproofing, recycling and talking to others about carbon fasting.

Information is available at phumc.com and arkansa sipl.com.

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