[su_note note_color=”#d5d5d5″ text_color=”#91201f”]The following is a reprint from Volume 3, Issue 18 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “Virtual Worlds.” You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.[/su_note]

I’m not sure how I found my way to my first online community. Maybe I googled “infertility.” Or maybe the website was listed in the back of my copy of Taking Charge of Your Fertility. I do know I was desperate to connect with other women who were in my same predicament. My husband and I were doing our part to conceive a child, but it was taking a lot longer than I had anticipated. My friends were getting pregnant within a month or two of trying, so I didn’t want to confide in them. And at that point in my life I was operating under the illusion that Christians weren’t allowed to be disappointed with their circumstances, so I mostly kept quiet about it. Be joyful always!

One morning during the summer of 2001, I created a user ID and password and began navigating through the chorus of voices in an online forum for women struggling with infertility. Almost every day for six months I logged on and read posts from women who desperately wanted to be moms. Sometimes it was depressing because regulars would eventually post that they saw two lines on their at-home pregnancy test when I had just started my period. I tried to be hopeful, though. If they were moving on to pregnancy forums, maybe I would one day too. I didn’t post much because I was too insecure and hesitant about sharing my thoughts in such a public way. But I read a lot—several times each day—and their words provided comfort to me because they told me I wasn’t alone.

Social networking can show us additional blips of each others’ stories that aid us in the work of knowing and being known.

I became pregnant with my daughter in March 2002, but decided against announcing the news on the forum. I quietly logged off the website, backed away from my desktop PC, and landed on my couch—where I spent several weeks due to intense nausea and exhaustion. I never made it to any pregnancy forums. Or any new mom forums. Working part-time and caring for my daughter left no room for any online interaction.

My next foray with the World Wide Web was a few years later through the blogosphere. I blogged, I read blogs, and I commented on blogs. Then on Christmas Day, 2008, I created my Facebook account. In May 2009, I joined Twitter. I’ve been active on both sites since then, except for a couple of Lent seasons when I gave up social networking instead of desserts or caffeine.

These days, I spend a lot of time on Twitter and Facebook. I scroll through status updates. I peruse headlines. I click on links and read articles and blog posts. I look at photos of friends’ kids and videos of their pets. I like and share and comment and retweet. Sometimes I’m more of a lurker and will go days without posting anything. When I do create my own statuses, I write about how much I love my city’s first Trader Joe’s or how hard parenting is. I also seek advice: “What are some good meals to prepare for 20 people?” I spread the love: “I’m reading my first David Foster Wallace book. Wow, brilliant writing!” I post my own dog videos, but I rarely post photos of my kids anymore because they’re old enough to object.

I love having a peek into the lives of friends, family members, acquaintances, and people I’ve never met. Sometimes those glimpses help me disconnect and take a break from my own life. I read through the feeds and zone-out while ignoring my to-do list or distracting myself from bickering children. But sometimes Twitter and Facebook help me connect with others. There are opportunities to offer and receive encouragement and prayers. There is oftentimes room for solidarity and a chance to tell someone else or to hear from someone else, “Me too.” In the past two weeks, because of Twitter and Facebook, I have commiserated with some friends about the church we were all members of years ago and have all since left. I have also messaged with someone about a recommendation I gave to her new employer. I have helped one Facebook friend get in touch with another Facebook friend who might be able to help her get the job she wants. And I have prayed for a stranger’s struggle with depression and anxiety.

I’m Facebook friends with several people who live in my neighborhood. I’ve found that running into them on Facebook is almost like running into them while I’m walking my dog or when I’m grabbing a latte at our local coffee shop. Interacting with neighbors in real life is ideal, but those small bursts of online interactions enhance our time face-to-face. Social networking can show us additional blips of each others’ stories which aids us in the work of knowing and being known.

Twitter and Facebook also help me stay up to date on the latest news, celebrity news gossip, political shenanigans, and other interesting current events. I like knowing what’s going on in the world. And I like seeing what others have to say about what’s going on in the world.

During a recent session with my spiritual director (whom I found after Googling “evangelical spiritual directors” and whom I meet with via Skype), I disclosed to her the extent of my social media usage expecting her to suggest I embark on an immediate non-Lent social media fast. But she responded to my confession with a series of questions instead:

“Are you connecting with God?”

“Yes.”

“Are you connecting with your husband and kids?”

“Yes.”

“Are you connecting with friends and neighbors?”

“Yes.”

“Are you connecting with yourself and having adequate solitude?”

“Yes.”

After a few minutes of conversation about each of these relationships she concluded:

“It sounds like you’re in a healthy place. I wouldn’t say this to all of my clients, but I don’t think you need to worry about your screen time.”

Then she told me she wants to help me have a more integrated life—a life where my faith and relationship with God aren’t separated from every other area. She said that’s what spiritual direction is about, after all. She followed up with a question I’m still thinking about two months later. She asked, “Have you ever invited God to join you while you’re on Twitter or Facebook?” “Um… no,” I replied. “I haven’t ever thought of doing that.” “Try it,” she suggested.

So I’ve been trying it. When I open the Twitter or Facebook app on my phone or when I go to the websites on my computer, I pray, “Father, God, I invite You to join me.” It feels awkward praying those words. It seems too Christian-y. But I do it anyway.

I invite others into my own joy and sorrow.

God isn’t any more present to me when I intentionally turn my attention to Him than when I don’t turn my attention to Him. I am more aware of His presence, though. I see more of Him, and I see more of His larger story playing out on the screen, in this world, and in the lives of my friends, acquaintances, and strangers.

There are abundant opportunities on Facebook and Twitter to enter into others’ joy and sorrow.

Instead of just smiling at a post about how a weary mom is ready for wine o’clock, I’m more prone to say a quick prayer for her. When I notice an undercurrent of loneliness in a tweet by a friend who is living in a new city, I send her an email asking how she’s doing. As I glance at a photo of a friend’s full-length profile and her barely visible baby bump, I thank God for His goodness and graciousness.

I also invite others into my own joy and sorrow. When I opened up recently on Facebook about my need for anti-anxiety meds to make it through the stress of Halloween, the few “likes” and comments helped me feel not as alone in my brokenness. When I tweeted about spending a few hours writing in one of my favorite spots, a writer friend’s “favorite” was an encouraging nudge.

Recognizing more of God’s withness and moving toward greater integration of my faith with other areas of my life has been freeing. I worry a lot less about how I’m spending my time. I still have regular focused time with God in Scripture and prayer, but I don’t feel as separated from Him after I close my Bible and put away my journal. I spend the same amount of time on Twitter and Facebook, but I don’t feel guilty about it anymore. I actually feel less guilt overall now. If God is with me when I’m on Twitter and Facebook, He’s also with me when I’m watching college football or Gilmore Girls. He’s with me when I’m singing along to the radio in my car. He’s with me when I’m grocery shopping and when I’m hanging out my kids and when I’m squirreled away in a corner of a coffee shop writing. Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence?

I have friends who prefer to not spend time on Facebook and Twitter because it’s too shiny. They don’t like how people only post about how wonderful (or how hot) their spouses are, how perfect their kids are, and how fabulous their last vacation to Paris was. It’s not an accurate picture of real life, and there’s too much room for manipulation. That’s a valid criticism. I remind myself that so-and-so’s seemingly perfect life is most likely not perfect. Even though I try to present a balanced view of myself—the good and the bad, those things worthy of celebration and those things that evoke grief—I’m sure I still portray an image I want others to have of me.

There are other downsides to social networking. There are Twitter wars between people who should know better. There is bullying. Unkind words are exchanged in comment threads that would never be spoken in person. There is risk of being embarrassed by someone posting a link on your Facebook wall that you’d rather not have in your feed. You could be tagged in an unflattering photo. I can see how some people choose to not go there.

But I do go there. I go there about five times each day for 20 minutes a pop. My time investment is in line with the findings of a recent study done by GlobalWebIndex. They found that Internet users spend an average of 1.72 hours on Facebook, Twitter, and similar sites each day. An anonymous survey of my Facebook friends and Twitter followers told me people in my circles spend about 30–45 minutes each day on social networking sites, though.

Six months ago, I would have looked at those numbers and compared myself to my friends and thought, “Ugh! I need to scale back.” But I’m okay with where I’m at with Facebook and Twitter. For me, the benefits of connecting with others and having a fun way to disengage when I need a break outweigh the drawbacks. My roles, responsibilities, and commitments allow for plenty of space for my current level of social networking. I still attend to my relationships with God and others, and I still have adequate alone time. I’ll continue to be thoughtful about how I engage online and offline. At some point in the future I may need to make some adjustments, but right now I’m in a healthy place. And I’m learning I’m not alone in it.

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out Seth’s graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.