Discerning a Call to Christian Celibacy

As some of you who have been following my blog may know, I am very interested in the topic of marriage/singleness and the church.  I believe that oftentimes, churches are so focused on marriage that those who choose singleness may be overlooked or feel unwelcomed.  In this blog post, I’d like to share some thoughts about the calling to be celibate.  I would first like to start off by saying that I think purity and celibacy are related to each other but are two separate things.  Many Christians will choose to be “celibate” before being married by which they mean they will not be engaged in sexual activity.  I believe that this is a very respectable choice for them to make, however, I would consider that to be “purity”.  To me, purity also refers to your thought pattern and the way you treat others, not simply to physical attraction.  For the purposes of this blog the word “celibacy” remains an intentional choice that one has made to be without a partner whether that be for a specific amount of time or for life.  Since I don’t know too much about celibacy for a season, this blog will be dealing primarily with the calling of life-time celibacy.

Throughout history, celibacy has had a very important standing within the Christian faith.  There are countless stories of both men and women who have served God as missionaries, nuns, monks, and priests and who have had their work greatly increase because they have chosen to remain without a spouse.  There are also many good examples of strong Christian couples who have extended God’s Kingdom vision.  There is no doubt in my mind that God uses both the single and the married to do His work – the important thing is that the work gets done.  I have often heard it said that the Protestants need to normalize celibacy a bit more and the Catholics need to not “force” celibacy on their priests.  I would agree with this statement, at least in theory, although I believe there is also great benefit to being a single priest.  When I think of myself being a pastor, I think celibacy can add a lot to this role.  My first priority can be to God and to the church rather than to my husband and children, and I can constantly be available to the needs of parishioners without worrying about my son being sick or my daughter’s basketball lessons, and forget about my maternity leave.   I even heard a priest say once that pre-marital counseling is easier for him than for a married pastor because he can look at marriage objectively rather than based on arguments he has had with his spouse. That said, I have also seen many wonderful examples of how marriage enhances a pastorate including couples who compliment each other’s gifts and spend time fervently in prayer together before the Lord.

All of this simply sets the backdrop for what I wish to say about how to discern celibacy.  I personally have been on my own journey, but have not come 100% to a place of deciding this as my chosen path – I believe it is a long process which requires much deliberation and the counsel of close friends and family members.  It should certainly not be rash, rushed into, forced upon, or an unattainable ideal.  In everything pure logic and the Holy Spirit need to be weighed heavily against an emotional response (such as extreme anger over a recent break-up or an “idealistic” mindset).

I believe there are many different reasons one could choose celibacy and they are likely all as valid as any of the others.  Some many choose celibacy for a time – perhaps they need to step away from distractions and get re-focused on Christ.  Sometimes someone might decide not to date for 6 months or 1 year following a break-up so that they don’t enter their next relationship “needy” and have some time to heal.  This is valid.  Others wish to give a year of service and some missionary organizations do not permit dating during that term – although it is difficult if you love someone on your team, I have known people who stuck it out until the end of the year without dating and now are married to someone from the field.  Sometimes a call to celibacy is another way of saying that you are willing to put God above a partner and temporarily or permanently try to grow closer spiritually rather than romantically.

I have often heard women (never men) at Tyndale say that they are called to celibacy only to start dating 6 months later and be engaged another 6 months after that.  For some, the call to celibacy could have been very real, I have no doubt.  Perhaps it was their way of having 6 months without distraction.  However, speaking for myself, I think there is a difference between being called to celibacy and telling God that you are willing to be celibate or married depending on His will for your life.  Definitely, if you are flexible to God’s will, He’ll make it known.  I’ve known people who were sure they were called to celibacy but were open to God’s leading and now they are married and vice versa.  However, although there’s nothing wrong with asking for God’s leading, I would not call that being called to celibacy or to marriage.

Perhaps someone is earnestly discerning celibacy – again I would not say that is a calling, but rather an honest evaluation (sort of like discerning for the piresthood – many are called, few are chosen).

Also, sometimes people believe that by resigning to God they will get what they want.  Some people say the women who don’t want to get married are the ones who end up having partners.  Caution must be taken to see how much of the calling is emotional and how much is spiritual.  The Bible says that God will give us the desires of our hearts, but our desires are not always the same as our wants.  I don’t believe God calls us to bee miserable so if you would be miserable without a spouse, it might not be your calling.  Though God can definitely teach you a lot about patience and His perfect timing if you get married in your 50s rather than in your 20s.  It is never my place to say if someone’s calling towards celibacy is legitimate or not, but I maintain that we must use the greatest of caution.

For the past 3 years I have been exploring Christian celibacy, though I have been very seriously exploring it for the past 8 months.  Throughout these years, there was a very brief period when I dated, this did not confirm or dis-confirm my calling one way or another.  After 3 years I still have not decided, but I continue to take the quest very seriously.  The following are some questions and points I would urge you to consider if you are thinking of long-term celibacy.  I won’t speak to short term celibacy  as I don’t know enough about it:

1) What are the circumstances behind your desire?

– Ask yourself the following questions:

* Have you recently broken up and are going through a phase of “hating” men or women?

* Is there a fear of closeness or intimacy?

* Do you have trouble with emotional attachment?

* If there is fear of physical intimacy is it the result of assault, rape, or abuse done to you?  If so, you may wish to speak to a professional counselor if you have not already done so.

* Is there a fear of commitment (perhaps you are overly independent)?

* Have you had bad experiences in many or all of your relationships or grew up in a broken family?

– Before choosing celibacy, it’s important to address these issues.  Getting the past out of the way may help clarify or sharpen your desire to be celibate.

2) The Apostle Paul totes celibacy as a high calling.  He himself was never married.  Yet, he warns that it is “better to marry than to burn with lust.” (1 Corinthians 7:9).  Think about your sense of attraction.  Ask yourself the following questions:

* Will celibacy create undo pressure or will it enhance your Christian calling?

* Even celibate people are sexual beings, but will you be able to repress your urges or will you be constantly led into temptation?

* Will you “miss out” on romance or will you be okay without it?

– Make no mistake, you do not have to be asexual to be celibate, but I do believe some may have stronger feelings or desires for the sexual than others.

3) Can you serve God better celibate or married?

If you do want to marry think about your future spouse who you have committed to spending the rest of your life with.  If you are a Christian, he or she needs to also be a strong Christian willing to raise your children up in the Lord and lead and establish a Godly household.  Too often, Christians who marry non-Christians have backslid and stopped attending church.  This is not always the case, however, almost all the Christians I know who have non-Christian spouses will admit that it is very difficult and that they don’t always see “eye to eye” with their spouse because of the religious differences.  So, do yourself the favour of reducing the added stress.  Even if your potential spouse is a strong Christian, does he or she have the same goals and dreams of you do for serving the Lord (for example: is one of you sensing a very strong calling to mission work and the other not?).

4) Who else will be affected by your decision?

Celibacy does not just affect one person, but many.  It means your best friends may never stand up at your wedding and your parents may or may not have grandchildren.  Before making a vow, I would urge you to talk to them – especially parents about how the decision will affect them.  Naturally, you can still decide to be celibate even if others don’t approve if that is your calling, but it might help if it is an on-going conversation rather than simply “sprung on them” one day.

5) What will you lose?

Every discernment session I am part of whenever any aspect of calling is brought into light features this very important question.  It’s an important one – will it cause conflict in your family?  Will you be miserable without a life partner?  You may also find if you choose lifelong celibacy that eventually almost all of your friends will be married with children – will that upset the natural cycle of things for you?  All things to consider.

NOTE: If your desire is to have kids but not be married, keep in mind that this is still a very viable option for you through adoption.  If you are a woman and desire to go through physical labour, this is also possible.  All of this depends, of course, on your religious and ethical convictions.  If your conviction is that it is not right to intentionally raise a child without a father there may be other ways that you can become involved with children such as through a Big Sister/Big Brother program or teaching Sunday school.

6) Think about the benefits of celibacy.  Do they outweigh the disadvantages and inconveniences and are you willing to pay the cost?

Celibacy provides many opportunities for travel and constantly switching jobs.  It also provides less risk to family, and can also bring a new family into your life (such as working at L’Arche).  Jean Vanier writes in Community and Growth that some L’Arche assistants choose celibacy because their calling to the organization and ministry outweighs their desire to be married and to truly be committed longterm often requires giving up marriage.  Let me pause here and say, there are also examples of married couples at L’Arche and even families, however, the married couple I know admit that it does get harder to take care of your family as a smaller community and the larger community of L’Arche at the same time while giving the same amount to each.

But ask yourself if you will be lonely or depressed.  Think about how you feel when you aren’t dating and ask yourself if your temperament would be better suited with or without a mate (this has absolutely nothing to do with extroversion or introversion).

7) Before deciding on long term celibacy, spend time in much prayer and in Spiritual Direction.  If you suddenly develop strong feelings for marriage during this time of discernment (even if you do not become attracted to anyone during this phase) it is something to pay close attention to.

8) Listen to what the people who know you best have to say.  In my case, many suggested I was called to celibacy even before I officially started researching it.  Some say they would have been really upset if someone said that to them, but I wasn’t.  Actually, the people I look up to the most are intentionally celibate women who have accomplished so much for God by never being married.

In fact, when people said I was called to celibacy, I regarded this as a compliment.  Nevertheless, it is no one’s decision but yours and God’s as to whether you are indeed called.

In a book by Alice R. Cullinan “Sorting it Out – Discerning God’s Call to Ministry”, Cullinan makes an important point that I feel is relevant here.  If you’re discerning a calling ask yourself: A) Do I feel the call within myself?  B) Is it being affirmed by others around me? C) Is there a need for it?

9) Although your personal experience is very important, try to do your research.  Talk to others who have chosen the celibate life, read books by well-known celibates, talk with a Nun, Priest, or Spiritual Director and read the Bible with a new lens.  This will help you greatly.

10) Lastly, the call to celibacy need not be a “life sentence” and in fact shouldn’t be seen in that light.  Unless you actually are a Nun or Priest, don’t close the door to possibilities, simply remain focused on Christ first.  Especially if you are young, you needn’t think too far in advance – God honours the motivation behind the calling rather than the legalism of it.

These are all just my personal thoughts.  I continue to learn and grow each day and know that I am fairly young to make such a decision (although age should never hinder a celibate desire).  Just keep in mind if you’re young that you may not have found the right person yet and some have desires much earlier or later than others (I only had 1 crush in my life and that was at age 21, I’ve known others who had their first crush in their 30s, and also those who already had crushes at 8 or 9 – everyone’s experience is a bit different, but all are equal valid).

NOTES: * As with any calling, it is important to discern whether you are indeed called to celibacy or simply being called to live a more holy life – one can live a holy life either as a single person or as a married person.

* Sometimes when someone divorces or is widowed they may choose to remain celibate for the rest of their life.  There are certainly many examples of people who have served God in this way.

* Some people may say that they never saw themselves being single and yet they are in their 40s without a mate.  There could be reasons for this (women get married later because of careers such as in the book “What, No Baby?” by: Leslie Cannold).  I do not entirely know why God has not placed a mate into their life, I will not even attempt to answer this question although I think it’s an important one to raise.

* Certain people who are homosexual believe it to be a sin.  They may even have tried to “fix” themselves and been unsuccessful.  Given that they feel so strongly that it is wrong for them to practice they have chosen celibacy to reduce temptation and sin.  This is definitely commendable and shows great integrity.  I will not speak further to this topic as homosexuality is not a topic I overtly discuss on this blog.

Learning Spirituality Through Watching Life of Pi

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While on a plane heading to Rome, I took advantage of our in-flight movie options and watched Life of Pi.  This is an incredible story of a young man lost at sea who keeps his will to survive because of his animal friends.  Tracing the life of an East Indian man, Piscine (Pi) from childhood to grown maturity, we see in this 2 hour length feature many of the same questions all of us who are Christian face from time to time.

As a young boy, Pi is very sensitive to all living creatures believing them to have souls.  He also readily embraces a variety of faiths claiming at first to be a Muslim-Hindu-Catholic and later to be Hindu, Catholic, and even Jewish.  One of the best Christian scenes in this movie is when Pi goes into a local church and meets a priest who tells him of Christ’s love for him in dying for his sins.  At first Pi has difficulty accepting this, but later it becomes a great comfort to him.  As Pi is telling his story to his reporter-friend, he mentions that he came to believe in God because of Hinduism, but it was through Christianity that he learned full self-sacrifice.

Even though I personally respect Pi’s deep values for inter-faith understanding, his father does raise an important point even in his skepticism.  Pi’s Dad tells his son that he cannot be all three religions at once – he must choose.  His father would rather his son believe something he disagrees with than nothing at all.  Pi’s Dad then goes on to say that discerning spiritual truths requires deep critical thinking.  As a liberal Christian, this is something that I have been working through in my own life.  I do believe that we have to “stand for something or we’ll fall for anything”, yet at the same time, it is truly hard to find that balance.  One thing Pi is clear about, though, is that regardless of our thoughts, we still need to respect other’s belief systems.  In an analogous way, Pi likens it to living on his boat with a tiger, using the phrase, “I realized that if we were going to live together, we needed to learn how to communicate.”  Truer words have seldom been spoken.  Considering all of the violence and schisms caused by religion, hatred, and racism, it is important for us to truly learn to listen and care for each other.

Another prominent theme in the Life of Pi is that of providence.  On the boat, Pi does yell at God, but he keeps believing in Him regardless.  He talks about how God led him to an island and had he not gone there he would have died, yet, God also brought him out of the island by showing him that if he would have stayed there he would have died.  Once again this resonated with me because it shows that sometimes God may lead us in a certain direction for a time, but not forever.  Lately, God’s been teaching me not to close any doors, but also not to force doors open that need to be shut.  In a way, it also reminds me of Job’s words, “He gave and He took away – blessed be the Name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21)  Pi even told his friend that when God seemed to have abandoned him he realized that God’s hand was still with him.

Despite this being a Hollywood/Pop-Culture film, it did have quite a bit of theologizing in it.  I don’t remember all of Pi’s quotes, but I do know he said many things that resonated with my Christian walk at this moment.  Pi even left us with one final challenge – whether or not we are Christians, we have the chance to write the ending to all of our stories (even the ones with the most pain and loss).  If we want, the ending can be a happy one – full of promise.  I leave you now with that same challenge – what is the story that needs an ending in your life and how are you going to end it?

I Dared to Call Him Mother (Using Gender-Inclusive Terms in the Church)

During my stay at AMBS (which in some ways may be considered short, but in other ways has been long enough to get a fairly comprehensive view of the school), I have noticed that many members of our community frown upon what is considered to be “Paternalistic” language.  Many seem almost afraid to use the term “Father” seeing it as old-fashioned and out of vogue.  It seems as if it is more acceptable to just use the term “God” rather than even finding a balance between Father/Mother, or to use completely gender inclusive terms such as “Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer” in place of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

I see a great value in trying to becoming more gender inclusive.  For many years, women have felt that their voice has mattered less, caught in a patriarchal religion which made a male God hard to identify with for some.  Oftentimes, patriarchy can cloud how we view the Scriptures perhaps making it inaccessible to some, and when Scripture becomes inaccessible one might simply choose to do without the Gospels (or any other part of the Bible for that matter).

At the same time as realizing that God is beyond gender and neither male nor female, I think there are some concerns with doing completely away with the term “Father” and only saying “God”.  For one, English does not have a gender inclusive pronoun which would be appropriate.  I doubt anyone would feel comfortable calling God “it”.  Yet to substitute “God” for every “he” or “him” is in my opinion redundant.  One would not say “Deborah went to the store, then Deborah bought some eggs and cheese.  Then Deborah walked back to the seminary.  Then Deborah made lunch.  Then Deborah ate it.”  I’m pretty sure if we talked like this all the time people would get tired of our third person language.  It might even feel foreign or strange – if you know me, Deborah, why would you keep referring to me by my proper name?  You might use my name once as a way of getting someone’s attention so that they know who you are referring to, but after that you will just say “she”.   This problem specifically comes into play when we are using hymns that were written at a different time period where Father language was quite acceptable.  To change all the hes and hims to “God” would not make musical or metrical sense.  My personal favourite is how people sing “Praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise God all creatures hear below, praise God above Ye heavenly hosts.  Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost”.  As hard as we might try to do away with the Paternalistic language, it is virtually impossible to sing one of our favourite hymns to the same melody without being paternalistic with it.                        

I spent a summer interning at a Pregnancy Resource Center.  This is where I first learned to pray in non-Father language.  So many young teenage women came to us from abusive relationships with men.  Some of them never had a Father or had a less than desirable Father.  To use Father language with them would be to exacerbate an already existing problem.  So I learned to address God in other ways.  Yet, overtime, I would gradually bring in the concept of God as a Father.  Many of the clients found this to be most helpful.  At the beginning, finding God to be a Father was beyond their grasp, yet later on, it became a source of comfort and hope.  God was the Father they never had.  God was the only “man” they could trust.  God was a “man” who did not let them down.  They found this to be very healing. 

I think that to never use “Father” is to do people a disservice.  There might be others in our midst who would really benefit from seeing God as a “Father” or as a “Mother” and not just as “God”.  So, I personally feel it would be better to use “Father” and “Mother” interchangeably rather than being afraid of those terms.  Rather than just saying “God” “God” “God” “God’s self” all the time.

Or you could adopt the prayer that I have used now for several years, “Father God and Mothering Spirit” or “Father God with the Mothering Spirit”.  I have found that even my most conservative friends who feel it is an insult to call God “Mother” to have been quite okay with this prayer and several of them have even started using this prayer on their own despite the fact that they would otherwise never call God anything other than “Father”.

 

Giving Voice to Feminist Pacifism

The old stereotype goes that men are rough and that a shot of their testosterone will not only give them the necessary skills to hunt and gather, but that it will also provide them with the ability to wage war if need be.  Women, on the other hand, are sweet and mild.  Not capable of committing such atrocities because they are too innocent. Yet, today’s military boasts almost as many women as men, some who are increasingly rising to positions of power and prestige.  Women are edging to receive equality with men in every respect – including in their ability to wage war and to decide on which lives will be kept and which lost. 

While wars continue to ravage food supplies and devastate whole countries, there remains a hint of humanity in it all.  Several women join their voices together to say that while they are equal to men, there is something fundamentally different about them.  Their maternal nature is designed to give not to demolish life.  They believe that the next generation should not have to grow up in the tension of wars and appeal to other women to believe the same by reminding them of how much they “love their own families.”  A mother’s love is perhaps the strongest love anyone could ever possess, and it is for this reason that we are urged to think of Somali and Iraqi women who feel the same affection for their sons and daughters who are being lost to violence daily.[1]

While feminist anti-war movements can be traced as far back as the Greek Lysistrata who suggested that she be in charge of the country’s finances in order to prevent the war, which she deemed as unnecessary, from taking place; in more recent years two groups: Another Mother for Peace and Code Pink have landed on the purview of feminist peace activists.

Another Mother for Peace began in 1967 as an answer to ending the War in Vietnam. They toted a logo of a sunflower bearing the inscription “war is not healthy for children and other living things” and created Mother’s Day cards which urged their followers to end the fighting.[2]  This group had the motto of Pax Materna that “No mother is enemy to another mother” and was revolutionary in the fact that political, partisan, and socio-economic lines ceased to be an issue for them.[3]  All were equal in their mind.  As a group, they not only protested the War in Vietnam, but also the Nuclear Arms Race, the increasing military budget, and the destruction of nuclear pollution to the ecosystems of the world.[4]  What they were doing was truly revolutionary, and yet, because they were blazing a new trail in so many ways, they faced restricted freedom.  They were clearly feminists, and yet, they were not the type of radical feminists that one might expect today.  They were a group made up largely of housewives and the stereotypical “Miss Americas”.  They stayed mainstream, and were largely a group that sought to give women an opportunity to support the male voices already in the system which stood against war.[5]

On the other hand, CodePink, a group that was founded in 2002 as an answer to the looming invasion on Iraq has become more of a feminist movement.[6]  Men had their chance to lead the way in wars, now women must lead the way in peace.[7]  This group which includes co-founder Medea Benjamin, most known for her confident question asking stance to President Obama, seeks to move from the mainstream into more of a grassroots type setting deeply committed to peace and social justice.[8] 

The interesting thing to note in this shift is a change in the cultural understanding of the word “feminist”.  In a time when women largely have all the rights and privileges of men, at least on paper, their voices still remain unheard.  They still have to work towards being included in the political sector – an area seen as a boy’s arena which “proper ladies need to stay out of.”  Despite the fact that both groups consider themselves to be feminist answers to this problem, it is interesting to see how they both revert back to motherhood as the ultimate sign of femininity.  In a way they are right, feminism can include raising and leading a family, but it is also so much more.  Ultimately, feminist pacifism includes a desire to take a stance against the injustices of the world and to dare to free others from the lies and blatant contradictions made by many political leaders who justify war as a means to achieve peace.  This is where true feminism lies and it is an area that all women – whether old or young, are called to engage in. 


[1] M. Moravec, “Another Mother for Peace: Reconsidering Maternalistic Peace Rhetoric from an Historical Perspective, 1967-2007” (Journal of the Motherhood Initiative, Rosemont College, 2013), 5.

[2] “About – History,” Another Mother for Peace, Accessed May 30, 2013, http://www.anothermother.org/about.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Moravec, “Another Mother for Peace”, 4.

[6] Ibid, 5.

[7] Ibid.

[8]  “Medea Benjamin: Meet the CodePink Co-Founder Who Interrupted Obama’s National Security Speech,” Policymic, Accessed May 30, 2013, http://www.policymic.com/articles/44713/medea-benjamin-meet-the-codepink-co-founder-who-interrupted-obama-s-national-security-speech.Image

Summer Reading

So, I’m going to do something a bit unconvential and ask you a question:

WHAT ARE YOUR FAVOURITE BOOKS? 

I have shared with you the books I’ve read so far this summer (though I haven’t done the best job at keeping that updated).  I’m interested to know if you have suggestions.  Just in general: fiction, non-fiction, poetry…

I’m specifically interested in Mennonite books, books on pacifism, and other philosophical musing.  Just thought maybe you could share some ideas with those who follow this blog just for interest’s sake.

My First State of Formation Post

I have recently begun posting thoughts and engaging in dialogue with other student writers on State of Formation Online.  Their main website is: http://www.stateofformation.org/, but you can find this specific post at: http://www.stateofformation.org/2013/06/why-i-am-committed-to-building-relationships-with-those-from-different-religious-and-ethical-traditions-2/.  This info is only meant as an introduction to SOF, therefore, it’s probably not going to flow that well with my other blogs, but here goes nothing:

Why I am Committed to Building Relationships with Those from Different Religious and Ethical Traditions

As a committed Christian, I have experienced both open-mindness and closed thinking when it comes to how the church deals with varying moral and ethical convictions. Unfortunately, all too often, I have seen barriers put up which prohibit free thinkers from entering in. I believe that this is contrary to the true Christian way which seeks to include all people and to corporately grow as a body through integrating various faith practices.

I grew up as a “third culture kid” – juxtaposed between two different religious and cultural identities. These experiences, although challenging at times, taught me the importance of bridging ethical and cultural realities into a common bond of peace. They also served as a way of mentally preparing myself for the reality of living in the most multicultural city in the world – Toronto, as I completed my undergrad degree. It was through attending school in the biggest city in Canada that I was introduced to virtually every religion I could imagine and created deep friendships with others who shared limited religious or ethical commonalities or worldviews with me.

University also was the birth place of my peace activism which has since morphed into deeply committed pacifism, and it was with the encouragement of select faculty and peers that I began to pursue peace and theology at the graduate level. Throughout my time exploring various scholarship and through internship work, I have discovered that building bridges with people from various religious and ethical backgrounds and expressions is paramount to cultivating a deeper understanding of one’s global reality as co-creator with the earth. My understanding of peace has then gone on to include a need to stop focusing so much on differences and instead to embrace and try to enhance the common bond that all of humanity shares.

In order to embrace this common bond, I see a need for me to grow alongside others academically, philosophically, and socially, through hearing and articulating ethical and religious thoughts in various ways. I am excited about the prospect of reading, writing, and researching through State of Formation as I continue to learn from and hopefully also aid others in their pursuits of becoming more acquainted with Christian understandings of ethics and religion.

My Love/Hate Relationship With Facebook

The following blog is completely a rant.  It’s not at all related to Anabaptism, but I just felt like including it because it raises some questions I have about the whole Facebook culture.  I really would love to continue dialoguing about this with others to hear your opinions and thoughts.  Is Facebook a necessary evil or is it actually a ministry tool?  Does adding congregants as friends truly enhance your ministry or does adding students truly enhance your approach to teaching?  Does Facebook detract at all from how people preceive you both in and out of the pulpit? Personally, I’ve noticed a sharp difference between how peers and church members view facebook and how more professional people do.  I’ve also noticed a marked difference between how my university saw facebook and how people who are currently in my life view it.  I’d love for you to be part of this on-going discussion by commenting on this blog or sending me a personal email at: deborahruthferber@gmail.com.

I also apologize for this disjointedness of this post – it was written at 2am.

Facebook.  One of the most common addictions, one of the best ways to keep in touch, and one of the fastest ways to get you into trouble.  Facebook definitely does have many good features to it: a chance to connect with acquaintances and stay updated on their lives in ways that past generations never were able to do.  It offers a chance for users to upload and view hundreds of pictures as a virtual photo album – really, how many people would come over to your house and pour over the yellowed pictures?  It also offers potential for dialogue.  On my Facebook page I have posted thoughtful quotes, excerpts from books I am reading, denominational news, and even occasionally real news clippings.  Another feature I love about Facebook are the groups – I am part of several groups which keep me updated on all the happenings in Canada (even when I am away in school), sometimes these groups even have some rigorous dialogue going on – I, for one, have discussed on my Mennonite and Tyndale groups many subjects related to homosexuality, youth and the church, and gender issues with many pastors and other leaders.  I have to say – I have learned way more from them than I have contributed, and sometimes I have even changed hardened beliefs because of their thoughtful and persistent dialoguing.  Facebook has also introduced me to some of my distant relatives who I have never met in person and to some of the Mennonerds I blog with – even though I haven’t met them live, it has been a way of introducing ourselves to each other.

I am a Facebook junkie.  I never bring my laptop to class because I know that it will just distract me and I will be on FB the whole time, but I have been known to scroll down my page and pick out random wall photos for use in class projects.  Occasionally, I even go back to FB after class because I will say something like “hmm.. someone wrote something on FB about this” or “one of my FB groups was talking about this” or “I remember that I put a certain quote on FB from the readings for this week because it just inspired me that much.”  Admittedly, I spend too much time on Facebook which anyone who has me added as a friend will notice.  I have spent increasingly more time on it in grad school, though, when I was away from my friends and this was the only real connection I had to home.  When they started posting pictures of poutine – I started drooling :).

Even though I believe there are so many good things about Facebook, I have been noticing that there are a few not so great features about it.  1) Facebook is very addictive.  In all honesty, Facebook is actually kind of boring.  Sure, I love looking at wedding pics for weddings I was never invited to, and I legitimately am happy for my acquaintances who get married and are having children.  Especially when I am far away from friends and don’t get to see their children growing up, I love to track their progress online.  But in all honesty, what’s the point of scrolling down a newsfeed for hours?  I do it because it is a mindless exercise.  I suppose I should be committed to working out, gardening, or some other useful venue, instead, I spend it doing something that won’t require me to think.  I noticed this especially when I was in seminary.  When I was at Tyndale, we were young mostly adventure seekers who didn’t have a family and just wanted to have a fun time when we weren’t in class.  Sure, I was on Facebook quite a bit then as well, but after a long day of class we had activities.  Monday night our women’s prayer group met from 9:30-11pm, Tuesday we had dorm event from 9:45-midnight, Wednesdays tended to be student council event evenings, Thursday I volunteered teaching ESL at a local church, and weekends we usually had activities.  So all in all, I was busier just having fun.  After a long day at seminary, you may find that you have no energy left to read or write anything so you want to do something mindless.  Since you don’t have a TV, Facebook seems to be a good option.  Before you know it, two hours have passed and you have done nothing other than look at feeds.

2) My personal pet peeve with social media is that once you get into using one service you find that you are using all of them.  When I was 16, I very begrudgingly signed up for Facebook because I wanted to see pictures from a trip.  Back then, I limited myself to only my closest friends and tried not to put much personal information online (my first profile picture was me wearing a hat so you couldn’t even really see my face that well).  Over time, I gradually began to loosen up on Facebook, giving into the culture which posts every little thing about their day.  Since then, I have recently added Twitter because it is helpful in competitions and in the blog world.  I also check my email several times a day and look at all my favourite blogs.  In a way, it is so time consuming, and yet so addictive.

3) Facebook gives a false sense of security.  Many counselors say something like the average person only has about 5-15 really close friends. If you have even 10 really close friends count yourself fortunate and blessed.  On Facebook, everyone is called a “friend” whether they stood up in your wedding, share everything with you, were your college roomate, or were just someone that you met once at another friend’s party.  Sometimes you might never even have met them.  I’m not saying it’s bad to add acquaintances or people you don’t know at all.  In fact, I have sparked up some really good friendships that way, have shared in dialogue with them, or they have helped me get directions.  I’m just saying that in reality, the average person doesn’t really have 500 or 1000 or 5000 friends, but on Facebook it makes it appear that way.  I used to have close to 1000 friends then I ended up getting tired of that false sense of popularity so I narrowed it down to people that I actually talked to and had a connection with.  I still have way more “friends” than I do in reality, but I am tempted to become one of those people who has a really tight facebook with only their closest peers on it… though I haven’t gotten to that place yet.

4) People judge you based on your “Facebook persona” which can perhaps be a good thing or a bad thing.  Apparently from a psychological point of view, people are more honest on Facebook than they are on the phone or in person.  Perhaps this is because when something is online it is “traceable” or because they feel that since they are not really confronting the person face-to-face they can be more honest and open about their true feelings (especially when those feelings may be confrontational or controversial).  If you scroll down someone’s Facebook page, you probably get a good idea of who they are in about 1 or 2 minutes of doing so.  Their pictures, posts, likes, and comments really bring out who they are.  Unfortunately, this is also a negative thing.  For one, it can give you an impression of someone before you even meet them without giving them a chance to defend themselves.  My first encounter of this was in a job situation where my potential employer informed us all that she would not consider our applications unless we had added her as a friend and joined her facebook group.  In some ways, this might have been a good idea.  The job was for a rather conservative Christian camp and so she likely wanted to check our Facebook to see if we used vulgarities, showed pictures of us drinking, or added inappropriate content.  In some ways, I wish the other camp I worked for would have had that type of strictness… because some of what those counselors were putting on Facebook was pretty raunchy.  On the other hand, some would argue that that is an infringement of personal information.  What is in your private life deserves to be in your private life, and what is in your work life is in your work life.  Unfortunately, even if you have the highest security settings on Facebook, once something is shared on the web, it is no longer private property but is public.  I still remember back in my pre-Facebook days when I discovered my picture was on FB even though I hadn’t even added it – I was actually kind of ticked.

So, I think that there are definitely some advantages to Facebook, for example it’s a very quick and easy way for people to mass invite you to parties.  Some of my friends who have gotten rid of Facebook have found that since deleting it, they have missed out on social gatherings not because people didn’t want to invite them, but because they were overlooked since they weren’t in the “friend’s list”.  Facebook is also a great tool for connecting with youth – when I did one of my short pastoral summer internships, I spent quite a bit of office time on Facebook just connecting with the youth because I knew they wouldn’t respond as well to an email or phone call.

Facebook also has some definite disadvantages and raises some questions.  One disadvantage would be that some people don’t really understand the culture of Facebook.  On Facebook sarcasm is harder to pick up on (I’ve had people offended on other people’s behalves), the context of the joke can be lost if it took place in person (there’s a lot of online joking going on), it can also be a platform for bullying.  It raises a lot of questions like: who should you really have as your Facebook friends?  Should you add employers and co-workers (knowing that lots of people have been in trouble with their jobs because of it)?  Should you add professors or staff from your school or university?  I think that largely depends upon the type of job and school that you are a part of and who the people you are employed with or have as teachers are.  Personally, I can see it going both ways.

At Tyndale, I only added select professors and a several of our staff members.  It worked out well because people at Tyndale were used to this culture that unfortunately feeds off of “being the center of attention” online.  Face it – Facebook is largely a self-seeking/self-gratifying device.  Tyndale understood sarcasm, understood that face to face interaction was more important and never judged us based on what we said online (unless we did something which was against the school codes or that didn’t represent them in a good light).  If something was questionable, our professors were really nice in telling us what it was as soon as we posted it – within minutes it would likely be gone.  Tyndale professors also used Facebook to create student groups and post relevant materials and information, to engage with dialogues of interest outside of class (such as on topics of evangelism and mission), and sometimes just to stay connected.

Not all schools are that open or welcoming of Facebook.  Some schools will judge you based more on what you post on Facebook than who you are in the classroom.  Some professors will judge your blog posts the same way as they will grade your assignments.  That can be a good or a bad thing.  It could potentially be good because it makes you have integrity.  It is also bad because if the school doesn’t understand the culture of Facebook you will find yourself getting very frustrated.

The truth is that Facebook always needs to be taken with a grain of salt.  It’s a place where people let their guard down, let loose, rant and rave about whatever they feel like at that moment.  Sometimes they might have a serious thought to contribute, other times it might be something boring and uneventful.  Facebook is not usually a place for self-actualizing, deep self-awareness, sharp critical thinking, the testing out of philosophical ideas, or being the most mature person on the planet.  There are a few Facebook groups that I am a part of which have components like that – they are places where I do talk about politics, economics, social change, and everything else.  However, Facebook, by and large, is just another social place for “virtual hanging out”.

I sometimes think that the whole Facebook culture has got it a little messed up.  We’re not actually the center of the universe so we probably don’t need to make it seem like the world revolves around us.  In that sense, Facebook is a place where people in their thirties and beyond still sometimes act like these teenagers who make everything about them.  On the other hand, it can also get frustrating to hear people say, “You’re not like this in person, but on Facebook you like to be the center of attention” or “when you write a paper/journal/blog you show a greater maturity, reflection, or self-awareness than you do when you are making a Facebook post.”  I would sure hope so.  Facebook is not the same as writing a journal.  Sure, my generation grew up posting everything “Going out to eat”, “eating pizza”, “going for a jog”, etc, but Facebook is not the place where you are going to wrestle with life’s deepest theological and philosophical problems, tell the world the many ways you’ve seen growth in yourself, share about your deepest feelings, or the gigantic fight you just got into with your significant other.  Some people may use Facebook for those purposes, and that is their decision, but most people do not.  Many people do, however, use Facebook to “get ahead” in a way, whether they admit it or not.  I’m not saying it’s the right thing to do, but if you scroll down many people’s feeds you notice they are sharing about themselves and that is because one only lives their own experience.  Facebook is not the place where you talk about random people, it’s a place where you share only about yourself and the people who are closest to you (like how proud you are of your child, spouse, significant other, or best friend).

So, in all of this, my admonition would be for people not to take Facebook as seriously.  Facebook is definitely a very helpful tool in communicating, connecting, networking, and marketing.  It’s a great way to meet people and get to know them in a deeper way than before the internet came along.  Some people even begin dating or grow closer in a dating relationship because of it.  It can also be harmful and damaging if not used correctly.  Words have been said that aren’t able to be retracted, relationships have been damaged because of it, and some people have even lose their jobs due to it.  Personally, I am a huge fan of Facebook and I have been really encouraged by many people at my church who tell me that when I am away it is the only way they keep up to date with what I’m doing.  They love to see pictures of my friends, they love the status updates which let them know how and what I am doing, they love some of the wall photos I post which make them giggle, and they get more excited than I do with the little chat box where we can converse about how things are unfolding.  Some friends have even told me that because of the names I tag in my posts they feel like they know my peers even though they have never met them.  Even though I’m a huge fan of this site, I still think we need to be careful of it.  Truthfully, the majority of people understand the gist of the culture, but every once in a while you’ll meet a random one or two people who will judge you so completely by it that it may hinder you from moving ahead or accomplishing something you want to finish.  Usually, you will tell your other friends about these one or two people and they will just shake their head and say, “don’t take what they say too personally, they don’t really understand the culture.”

After I wrote this I decided to disband my Facebook account for a while.  Here is what I wrote to my FB “Friends”: Given the last blog post I wrote, I am officially going off Facebook for a while… I’m gonna take a break from it for hopefully the next few weeks and possibly longer.  I will miss all of the updates and pictures that everyone posts, but would love to stay in touch 🙂  PLEASE SEND AN EMAIL TO: deborahruthferber@gmail.com if you want/ need to get in touch with me.

The point of this exercise is to do a little psychological/spiritual experiment.
~ I would like to challenge the whole Facebook culture (with its false sense of popularity and all-about-meness”)
~ I would like to kick my Facebook addiction and instead invest into real, live friendships especially when I move into L’Arche
~ I would like to actually read the news every day (not just get highlights from my feed)
~ I would like to use the time that I would have spent on Facebook exercising, talking in person with friends, praying, reading the Bible, reading books for fun, etc.
~ I would like to give all of your newfeeds a rest
~ I would like to re-evaluate the question of: What is the point of Facebook?  Given that at Tyndale, at church, and in life in general FB has been a largely positive experience, I do realize that there are a few people who feel FB defines a person and shows their maturity level.  So, I’d like to take some time away to discover if there is really any truth to this (it’s hard to know if there is truth to such a thing when you are invested so heavily in it and it’s virtually impossible for you to be self-critical in that way).
~ I am also very curious to know if not being on FB will make me feel more or less lonely.  We had a discussion in class once about how FB makes people lonely but also adds a false sense of friendship.  In that regard, it will be interesting to see who actually will stay in touch.
~ It’s also a test of the will – to see how long I can truly stay away.

So, anyways, I am going to miss seeing everyone’s summer wedding, baby, and other pics and reading your updates.  But once again, I really would like to keep in touch with you.  Send an email any time to: deborahruthferber@gmail.com during my absence.  See you in a few weeks, or months, or perhaps never again (if I never come back on FB)… that’s unlikely.

Additionally, I’m hoping to only go online for about an hour a day just to check my emails and favourite blogs.  I may occasionally be on longer than that since I do plan to continue to post blog material even during my absence… but I’m trying to go low-tech for a while.  Maybe I will come out with some strong Amish values ;).  At any rate, I’m trying to be counter-cultural since I don’t think the technological culture is always the best thing for our minds or our spirits.

Who knows?  Maybe I’ll even create a blog series of my experience without FB… but that would seem kind of to defeat the point.  Maybe I’ll just write you all up something when the whole process is over.