For 46 weeks a year, you’re tuned in. Aunt Bess updates everyone about her surgery. Brother Nick says he’s had an awful day at school. In between bites of lunch and running errands, you offer bits of consolation.
Facebook is your connection to the wider world. Somehow it’s soothing to scroll through the minutae, even though you could care less what your friend Jack just ate for his midnight snack. But then there’s Joe, offering a word of encouragement to all.
Lent begins Wednesday with Ash Wednesday. With nearly 42 percent of Americans on Facebook, some of those are Christians who plan to unplug.
Giving up chocolate? That’s so 20th century.
Last year around Lent, the Very Rev. Doug Hahn of St. Thomas Episcopal Church mentioned giving up social media for Lent. Charlie Snipes, one of his church members, was listening. He gave up posting on Facebook, though he kept reading others’ updates. Some tempted him, he said, by saying things like: “We know you’re out there.”
Come Wednesday, he’s giving it all up: no reading. “Forty days and 40 nights,” he said.
Why Facebook? “I don’t think I can give up more than one thing at a time; I’m not giving up cigarettes or chocolate,” said Snipes, 58.
Lent is the period of the liturgical year leading up to Easter. The traditional purpose of Lent is the preparation of the Christian believer -- through such practices as prayer, penitence, almsgiving and self-denial -- for the annual commemoration of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Traditionally, it is described as 40 days long, though different denominations calculate the days differently. (And the calendars of Western and Eastern traditions often don’t coincide.)
This year, Lent begins on Monday for Eastern Rite Christians, including the Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox churches.
The 40 days represent the time that, according to scripture, Jesus spent in the desert before the beginning of his public ministry, where he endured temptation by the devil.
Kelsey Harris is a 19-year-old freshman at LaGrange College. Last year for Lent, she gave up Facebook and put her cell phone in the closet. That meant no calling or texting. She’s giving up just Facebook this year. All her friends are on it, and she’s been on since ninth grade.
“It was really liberating; it was nice,” Harris said. “I was more active, I was doing things outside and seeing people more.”
Her spiritual goal was to focus more on her relationship with God. She’s a member of Cataula United Methodist Church.
“I always do something for Lent, and Facebook had my attention a lot of the time,” she said. “I needed to focus more on my relationship with the Lord.”
The downside for her was being out of touch, albeit temporarily, from long-distance friends and family.
The Rev. Jeff Jackson, 32, of St. Nicholas Episcopal Church in Hamilton put the nix on the suggestion that you take away his Facebook. Or his texting, blogging and Skyping.
“Not this guy,” he said, laughing.
“For me, it’s now such an active part of what I do. For some people, abuse of social media -- if it was a problem, they might give it up. It really is a way to communicate with a majority of my friends. For me, giving up TV would be more of a discipline but then again, we don’t have cable.” Also, Jackson’s wife, Molly, is about to have the couple’s fourth child.
“I’m giving up sleep,” he said.
Jeremy Miles, a member of Holy Family Catholic Church, gets Facebook updates via his phone. All of his friends are on Facebook.
“Since it comes to my phone, it’s immediate,” said the 20-year-old computer technician for the Columbus Consolidated Government. “It’d be something I’d have to block.
“It’d be hard, but I could do something like that.”
He said he typically gives up ice cream for Lent, which he eats every night.
Adding a service component to Lent is another trend among observers of Lent -- such as volunteering, or giving more to charity.
In recent years for the 40 days, many families at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Fort Mitchell, Ala., have contributed to Catholic Relief Service’s Operation Rice Bowl, said the pastor, the Rev. Guy Wilson. “A lot of us as children gave up candy for 40 days,” Wilson said, “but the idea now is maybe to put something away every day and give it to those in need.” Families at home can put money into a collection bowl and then at the end of Lent, bring the money to St. Joseph. It’s then sent to the relief organization.
Like Jeff Jackson, the Rev. John Adams of The Turner Ministry Resource Center at the Pastoral Institute has found himself too reliant on social networking to give it up 24/7 for six weeks. Partly because it’s a connection for work.
“I’m too addicted to it,” Adams, 66, admitted, “but with my job it’s almost like a lifeline.” He and his co-workers can now access work e-mail from their phones and when he’s off duty, “that has occasionally turned out to be a good thing.
“It’s nice for customer service, or if someone’s in crisis.”
And just this week, Adams found out via Facebook about a neighbor whose child was ill. It provided a reason to reach out.
Not only does Adams use Facebook to catch up friends’ news, but he’s also is part of a ministers’ support group that has its own private Facebook page. Nine are in the group.
Adams, who’s Baptist, said he typically gives up things for Lent “that carry a modicum of sacrifice, God forgive me. Like milkshakes. It’s not the end of the world if I would go several weeks without them.”