As we approach Lent once again, it's common to talk about ancient disciplines, like fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. These help individuals increase their faithfulness to Christ and develop habits appropriate for followers of Christ. Christian communities encourage corporate Lenten disciplines, like collections for world relief and mid-week prayer.
One of the most ancient Lenten disciplines is a process of faith formation called the catechumenate. Although the entire catechumenal process is a year (or longer) in duration, it finds its center in the preaching, Bible study, and liturgy of Lent, culminating in the baptism of catechumens at the Easter Vigil. As I share in my recent book Mediating Faith, I believe a process like the catechumenate, or even a liturgical season like Lent, is in fact a kind of technology, a medium, and as such, it works to invite those participating in it to be formed in certain ways.
We are often painfully aware that social media is media, or books and radio and television are media, but less aware that communal processes are also a kind of media. So we know that Lent does something. Observed well, it cultivates penitential beauty, strengthens the social character of the church and its disciplines, and lives with an eschatological awareness that all we do is also lived in anticipation of our future life in Christ.
But what do we hope the observance of Lent will accomplish? Here various Christian communities part ways. Many communities hope Lent will deepen classic (stereotypical?) virtues. These communities fast from meat on Fridays, eat soup suppers on Wednesdays, and pass out little cardboard boxes in which to place quarters for Heifer International.
These are practices, many of them commendable, certainly, but sometimes they can soothe the conscience without wounding in order to then cure the soul. So, other Christian communities take Lent to more radical places. Peter Rollins invites communities to give up God for Lent, what he calls Atheism for Lent. Rollins and other emerging Christian communities know that some kinds of practices reinforce ugly, individualistic, and hopeless disciplines. In order to encourage the kind of repentance and renewal Lent is designed to evoke, the practices have to be shocking enough to call the community out of its torpor.
This Lent, I invite you to make use of the following structure to "mediate" Lent in what I hope are some startling but transformative ways. The six-week plan, beginning Ash Wednesday and concluding during Holy Week, is certainly not exhaustive. It simply offers, one week at a time, a representative set of practices that might emerge organically out of meditation on the way media form us in faith. Woven through all the days are opportunities for beauty, sociality, and eschatological hope, and connections to the classic disciplines of Lent.
Week 1: Books
1) Page through a book that deeply impacted you as a child.
2) Read an essay by an author with whom you are in fundamental disagreement.
3) Hand copy the most beautiful poem you know and give it to a friend.
4) Ask a friend to read the text of a hymn out loud to you, slowly.
5) Donate an uncomfortable number of books to your library.
6) Try not to read anything today.
7) Use a book as a pillow. Literally.
Week 2: MMORPGs and Second Life
8) Create an avatar on Second Life and learn how to navigate in that world.
9) Find and meet other avatars and strike up a conversation.
10) Find a place of worship in Second Life and worship or pray there.
11) Ask a neighbor youth or your own child about their favorite social game.
12) Read the list of six strengths of games (pages 73-74) in Mediating Faith.
13) Invite a young person to teach you how to play a social game.
14) Read around in the World of Warcraft Wiki to learn about formation there.
Week 3: Catechumenate
15) Ask your pastor (or a colleague) about the process for formation for newcomers in their/your congregation.
16) Invite a group of friends over for a meal followed by a Bible study.
17) Ask yourself, "How does my baptism shape my faith today?"
18) Attend a formation event in another church, such as Alpha.
19) Seek out and interview a person baptized as an adult.
20) Browse the North American Catechumenate web site: http://www.catechumenate.org
21) Compare the catechumenate to how you are continuing to learn and grow in Christian community.
Week 4: Facebook and Social Media
22) Take one whole day and disconnect from all social media.
23) Post your favorite prayer as a status update or tweet.
24) Look over the shoulder of a friend as they browse a social network foreign to your experience.
25) Browse through the posts in an active Facebook group. Ask yourself, "How is this group shaping the participants in this group?"
26) Do something in social media that causes you discomfort.
27) Invite people in your network to donate to your favorite charity. Donate to theirs.
28) Reach out to someone you haven't messaged recently in social media, and offer a kind word.