The Internet of Suffering

In my lifetime I’ve seen the evolution of the Internet take us from a thing only computer geniuses know how to use to something any toddler with a smartphone can figure out. We went from dial up to wire up to wireless and we still want more, faster and better Internet connections.

Addiction seems a harsh word to use here. Isn’t that word “addiction” only for hard core drug users? Yet, we are starting to realize that this constant need to have Internet may not be based on a true need, but rather an unrestrained desire to scratch an itch that just won’t go away. We’ve all got the Internet pox virus.

From a faith perspective, the Internet is both a blessing and a curse. I use the Internet in my weekly study of scripture as I prepare for the Sunday sermon. I have books for this purpose, too. Yet it’s the Internet that I turn to religiously. On the Internet I find inspiration for sermon illustrations and I find insights into the scriptures from biblical scholars.

I also seek to better understand the world through the lens of the Internet and social media. Like so many others, it’s where I get most of my news. I read newspapers online and on Facebook I read and share things that have value and meaning to me.

Last week on purpose I took five days off from using the Internet. No email, no web browsing, no Facebook. This was an act of faith, a way to unplug from technology so I could plug into quality time with loved ones while on vacation. I am a better Christian, pastor, wife and mother when I’ve rebooted my internal computer by shutting the Internet down.

Getting back on the Internet and social media now after taking time away, I realize how vulnerable I am to being controlled by what I consume. Taking in all the news and scrolling through all the posts consumes a lot of our time and energy. It does something else, too. Too much consumption begins to warp our view of what’s important, of what’s true, and of who we are.

I realized that when suffering goes viral, it’s unavoidable. We can’t walk our dog or wash our hair without thinking about the latest trending news story. The suffering we are exposed to through the Internet, whether real or exaggerated, impacts us at an unconscious level. Catastrophes are everywhere all of the time. They replay in our minds day and night.

We know that living under constant threat is harmful to our wellbeing. The mental health of our nation is at risk because of the constant trauma we are exposed to on a daily basis. As a Christian, I wonder what is a faithful response to the suffering of the world, now that the details of global suffering are being tweeted and live-streamed for the world to see?

What I do know is this: The constant, nonstop watching, consuming, and viewing of the suffering of others is not helpful to anyone. Being “well-informed” is one thing, but we’ve got to know when to stop checking, clicking, tweeting and chasing the next thing. What can happen is that we become overwhelmed by the suffering and this information, instead of leading to change with positive outcomes to decrease the suffering, often can lead to numbness, hopelessness, despair, fear, anxiety, and situational depression.

What if there was a way to dial back our connectivity, to detox from this Internet pox virus? What if we looked at social media only on our lunch break? What if we focused our attention on the people we are in real life relationships with instead of spilling limited emotional capital on complete strangers and news stories that trigger us on the Internet?

What if we stopped feeding our Internet addictions and started feeding our souls, our deep longing for real connection and meaning. We long to be seen, to be known and to be loved. There is no shame in needing friends. But we’ve forgotten how to be friends. When our connections come through sharing, liking, tweeting and posting, it’s like drinking sugary sodas when your body craves clean, refreshing water. We need real friends and real love to quench our thirst.

Today I heard other pastors talking about how overwhelmed so many people in their communities are feeling, themselves included. One pastor said she has had to limit her exposure to the news and social media, and instead is taking more time for self-care. She says she does this to prepare herself for the difficult work ahead. I think that this hard-won wisdom and perspective is so helpful. Refraining temporarily from the Internet of suffering is not turning your back on the world, rather it’s preparing you to face the real world, ready to engage with your whole, best self.

What is a faithful Christian response to the Internet of suffering? Love your neighbor as yourself. Love yourself enough to unplug. Love yourself enough to go unwired, not wireless. Love yourself enough to look away from your screen so that you can look inward. Love yourself enough to trust that everything will not fall apart if you don’t like, click, tweet and post for awhile. Love yourself enough to experience not the suffering of the world, but the joy of the world…the joy right in front of you.

Experiencing joy, after all, is part of what it means to be human, too. We must not forget joy in these times of suffering. No matter what is going on, we are designed to delight in this beautiful world. It’s how we are wired. We find energy, hope, and motivation when we see that life continues despite it all. Beauty persists. Joy persists. Suffering will not break the sun.

Take daily breaks from the Internet of suffering. When we do, we can see that every moment of every day there is grace. And it is enough. These daily graces will prepare us for the work ahead, the work of healing, rebuilding, and restoring happiness, justice and liberty for all God’s beautiful children.

Bedtime Stories

When saying our bedtime prayers, I pray for the children who sleep on cots in old WAL-MART big box stores. According to this news article, thousands of children are literally being warehoused. This is not a metaphor or an exaggeration. The place designed to store plastic products made in China is where children are forced to live.

While reading my son his bedtime story, I think about all those children who have no one to provide nurture, emotional care or comfort. Yes, they get food and clothing. Yes they have shelter and medical care. But even abandoned dogs in an animal shelter get these things.

What about the emotional and psychological well-being of these children? Without access to parental or familial relationships, their growth is being harmed. Separating children from families without providing appropriate emotional and psychological attachments is a form of psychological and developmental torture.

There will be negative longterm side effects of this type of emotional and psychological neglect at the hands of the United States government. This will have implications for the future of these children who will grow into adults impacted by the traumatic effects of this form of psychological and developmental torture most likely leading to PTSD.

I know how much encouragement, nurture, love, tenderness, and comforting touch that my child needs from his parents on a daily basis for his own development and wellbeing. Children from other countries are no different than my child. All children need love and tenderness. All children are created in the image of God.

It is an insult to God and all creation that children are being treated worse than dogs. Separating children from their families and warehousing them is a crime against humanity that needs to be stopped as soon as possible because already too many children have experienced irreversible harm.

As a mother and as a Christian pastor, I am ashamed and horrified by this unacceptable policy. I believe Jesus Christ calls us to love the world’s children just as we love our very own. Would the President put his son in one of these warehouses?

Getting Saved: It’s Not What You Think

We saved a person last Thursday night at church and it’s not what you think. After the tears stopped rolling down their cheeks, they said, “thank you for saving me.”

This person was at church for a program and was feeling suicidal. They left the program in the church basement and sat upstairs alone in the church parlor, alone with thoughts of suicide.

That’s when a church member saw them and paused. She wondered what to do. Does she keep walking and pretend she doesn’t see the person crying? Does she nod in recognition of the pain, but keep moving away to give the person privacy?

Earlier that same week we hosted the author Rachael Keefe and learned about how churches can actively prevent suicide based on her new book The Lifesaving Church: Faith Communities and Suicide Prevention. Since this church member attended the training, she knew what to do and what not to do.

Pretending not to notice, to look the other way, to politely distance herself could have been fatal.

Instead, she sat down next to them and said, “I noticed you are having a hard time. Can you tell me about it?” From there the person opened up, was able to experience support and to de-escalate the suicidal feeling.

The church member came and got me. Sitting with them, we talked together through a safety plan. They were texting their mom, planned to go to see their therapist the next day, and let their roommate know. We sat together until they were ready to live again.

I stayed at church with them until they went home. By the time they left, the wave of suicidal urges had passed. Turns out, this experience was not uncommon for this person. What they had to learn was how to ride out the wave of suicidality. As a church, we knew how to help.

I thank God that they got saved that night at church. The church member who was the first responder said that she never would have stopped before she had the training. It was only because she knew the signs of someone in distress and she knew what to do that a life was saved.

Every church can be a Lifesaving Church. What would it take for your faith community to provide suicide prevention training for your leaders and members?

Keefe, Rachael. The Lifesaving Church: Faith Communities and Suicide Prevention (Chalice Press, 2018).