The Spiritual Discipline of Instagram Use

“Technology proposes itself as the architect of our intimacies.” – Sherry Turkle

This Fall, I’m taking a course on “Intro to Christian Spirituality” with Dr. Lauren Winner, in which we are tasked with completing the following assignment:

  1. Technology Fast: For one week this semester, fast from cell phones and Internet-based communications technologies (e.g., email, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, messaging clients including text messaging).
  2. Art-Staring Practice: Over the course of the semester, engage in the practice of art staring for three three-hour sessions, as described in this article.

One of the main points of these exercises, it seems, is to set aside distraction to bolster a sense of sustained presence with and appreciation of the life going on around us.

After technology-fasting or art-staring, we students are to write an essay about the experience. I may also write a blog about the experience.

But for right now? For now, I’m not thinking or writing much about the spiritual discipline of fasting from technology to appreciate the beauty of life so much as the spiritual discipline of using technology to appreciate the beauty of life.

2016_instagram_logoI’m thinking in particular of Instagram.

Throughout its first several years of rising popularity, I resisted Instagram both because I’m habitually a late-adopter when it comes to technology and because I suspected it could become something of an addiction.

Confession: It has become something of an addiction. It can at times become a source of distraction, narcissism, and social comparison. (Forgive me, for I have sinned. No joke.)

But, I have become convinced that, when used with prudence, Instagram can also become something of an inspiration.

I am convinced that Instagram can display far more than the user’s dinners or dogs (although those things are fine in moderation). Rather, these images can be thoughtful photographs, the captions poetry, the hashtags prophecy, and the post as a whole a profound piece of art.

Over the course of this year 2016, I have noticed 2 things: my Instagram use increased and my awareness of beauty in my surroundings increased. As with the chicken and the egg riddle, I’m not sure which came first — the Instagram use or the awareness of beauty. But, for the sake of my emotional, spiritual, and creative health, I would like to maintain both as a spiritual discipline.

When I’m on vacation and taking numerous pictures, I would like to discipline myself to select only one sight to represent and remember the day’s adventures.

When I’m waist-deep in work and taking zero pictures, I would like to discipline myself to still select at least one sight to remind myself that, even in that difficult day, there somehow exists an abundance of adventures if I only pay attention.   

I would like to discipline myself to use technology intentionally as “the architect of our intimacies,” as Turkle put it, which I understand as a guiding lens through which I can see my self and my surroundings. If I ever seem to use Instagram in excess, bear with me. But, as long as I’m posting once every few days as I tend to these days, I hope it can be a useful bit of beauty to bless you and me both.


Hey. Thanks For Caring.

I’ve heard it said that generally what homeless people essentially long for is for someone to care about them. To look them in the eye, learn their name, and ask about their day — that kind of thing. And I’ve agreed with that in theory.

But today I agree with that in practice. Because today I met Laura.

See, on the way home from work, I stopped at Target for ice cream. (Nothing else. Just ice cream. Because I drive by a Ben & Jerry’s cookie core billboard every other day and today I finally caved to the cravings.) When it was time to check out, I realized I had no cash, paid for my ice cream with a credit card, and requested cash back. After tucking the cash into my wallet and the wallet into my purse, I headed out to my car.

Before I could get to my car, a young woman approached me. She had long brown hair and tanned skin and maybe half of her teeth. She had a massive bruise on her forehead and a khaki bucket hat trying in vain to cover the bulging bruise.

Shyly, she asked if I maybe had any money to help her get to a motel that night.

[Confession: I have never given money to a stranger. Occasionally food or water, but never money. And I probably wouldn’t have this time except that literally five days ago, at a women’s Bible study, where we’ve been discussing the Sermon on the Mount and the beatitudes in particular, we discussed the topic of mercy. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Our Bible study leader that day challenged us very specifically to think about how we react to the homeless people we see daily on our city streets, how we have or have not shown them mercy in the past, and how we might extend mercy moving forward.]

Standing there outside Target, I stopped and sighed and sincerely considered giving her my Ben & Jerry’s (maybe even grabbing two spoons and eating it right there with her on the sidewalk!) and settled on saying this: “What’s your name?”

“Laura,” she said.

“And how are you doing today, Laura?” I asked, genuinely not sure where this was going or how long I intended to play counselor in the parking lot.

“I’m hanging in there,” Laura said, sounding both strong and sad. We looked at each other. Then, looking away, she added: “You’re gonna make me cry with all these questions.”

“I just want you to know I care about you,” I said slowly. And, sighing again, I reached into my purse and slipped out some of my newly-acquired cash — because how in the world, I thought, could I spend money on my own frivolous, dairy-based desires and then turn around and spend nothing on this new friend facing real fundamental needs?  Handing it to her, I said: “Please be safe tonight, OK?”

As I walked away, she called quietly after me: “Hey. Thanks for caring.”    

Now, I’m not saying that I did everything right, that I changed Laura’s life, or that she changed mine (although maybe she did, just a little bit). There’s questions to be asked, social issues to be raised, and things I could have done differently in my meeting with Laura. Various parts of me wish that I’d stayed with her longer, offered her something more, taken her to a homeless shelter, women’s shelter, or hospital.

For now, what I’m saying is this: There’s power in presence. There’s power in story. I’ve experienced it time and time again. There’s power in stopping and sighing and sincerely considering spending something on behalf of someone — spending time, spending money, spending something.

What if, I wonder, we looked into the eyes of more Lauras — whether that’s baristas or barbers, neighbors or no-names? What if we learned their name? Asked about their day?

What if we had more conversations that left people calling quietly after us: “Hey. Thanks for caring.”

Happy (Still) Easter

I know, I know. Easter blogs were supposed to happen a month ago.

It’s not that I procrastinated exactly (although maybe I did). It’s just that it’s still Easter. And that’s fascinating to me. As I’ve settled into the relatively-new-to-me rhythms of the Episcopal tradition perhaps more than ever this year, I’ve noticed the continuation of Eastertide in some little day-to-day ways.

There’s the old wooden sign at the front of the IMG_2208church that keeps insisting it’s Easter even
though the now chocolate-less children and the Hallmark stores would beg to differ. Easter 1, Easter 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. It goes on and on, week by week, rolling in over us like the waves of an Easter tide (that’s what they call it after all: Eastertide).

There’s the “alleluia” that we say during the liturgy, nice and noticeable now after skipping the “alleluia” during the more somber season of Lent. Sometimes the prayer book even tells us to say “alleluia” two or three times — like when my housemates and I pray compline on Sunday nights and, laughing a little, they say alleluia-alleluia-alleluia as though it’s a tongue twister. It comes out more hurried than holy sometimes, but it makes me happy nonetheless.

Finally, the other day, the nice maintenance man IMG_2273who mows our yard removed the cross from out front — the chipboard cross that was handed out at church during Holy Week to adorn our homes for a season — and placed it gently on the porch, out of the way of his yard work. I thought about bringing the cross inside that day, picked it up, noticed the soft earth appropriately sullying the bottom of the cross. But, that’s the moment when I started thinking about all this Easter season stuff, started thinking about how Christ is still risen and how maybe I should remember that and show the world that just a little longer, and stuck the cross right back into the ground.

He is still risen.

It’s not just that “he arose” in the past tense. It’s that “he is risen” in the present continuous tense (I think that’s the tense? God might be breaking grammar rules in this case. But I’ll forgive Him.) It’s the mystery of the faith that “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again” — past, present, and future.

As for right now? We’re in the present. And Christ is absolutely present. Not just for one day but for many days, for every day, and for the everyday.

What in the World Is Eternal Life?

This was originally posted on the blog of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA.

I used to know someone who hated the song “Amazing Grace.” The first few verses were fine enough, he said, but then he would get to the last stanza — the one about eternal life — and freeze.

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’ve first begun.

“That’s absolutely terrifying,” my friend insisted. He pictured himself as a halo-ed Energizer bunny playing a harp on a cloud day after day after day.

“That would be pretty terrifying,” I agreed.

But what if that’s not what eternal life means? What if eternal life is less about the continuation of time forever and more about the removal of the limitations of time forever? Less about the “ten thousand years” and more about the divine irrelevance of years?


Holy Ground

Last Sunday, I heard a poignant sermon reflecting primarily on the Exodus 3 account of Moses and the burning bush, wherein the LORD tells Moses (among other things): “Do not come any closer. Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”

The preacher shared an anecdote about praying with a friend in a mundane conference room at a Hilton Hotel in Washington, DC, thereby turning the boring, tacky-carpeted ground into a sort of holy ground. He made the point that encounters with God happen in churches, to be sure, but perhaps more often in hospital rooms, living rooms, hotel conference rooms, and myriad other sorts of rooms.

I came away wondering: “Where have I been on holy ground?”

Conveniently, there’s a song called “We Are Standing on Holy Ground.” And, remarkably, I’ve witnessed it sung in some unusual places.

In 2007, I was on a short-term mission trip in Mexico City, Caitlin'sPicsprimarily serving communities of people living in garbage dumps just outside the city. My group offered basic medical, dental, and optical care, as well as activities for children. As we set up one day, perhaps to get our minds off of the garbage stench surrounding us, a group leader and native Mexican started singing “We Are Standing On Holy Ground.” That day, the garbage dump was a difficult experience for perhaps all five our physical senses — sight, sound, touch, taste, and certainly smell — and yet the garbage dump was a beautiful experience for our spiritual sensibilities. It’s hard to describe how that can be. But I know there’s not many places where I’ve felt as alive and focused and full of love as I did that day, singing and serving and sitting alongside precious people who are precious purely because they are people (not because of where or how they live).

And then, during my recent 2016 trip to San Ignacio, Belize…it happened again. (Holy ground just won’t leave me alone!) While visiting a classroom at Santa Elena Baptist School, the students and their teacher offered to sing for us. We stood back, listened, and let the goosebumps come.

“We are standing on holy ground
And I know that there are angels all around
Let us praise Jesus now
For we are standing in His presence on holy ground

What makes a classroom holy? What makes a garbage dump holy? (Wouldn’t the holy thing, I wonder, be to move the dump’s residents out of the dump? There’s truth in that, I’m sure.)

Let’s let Moses provide the answer. Based on Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush, it looks like God’s presence — and man’s prayerful pause to notice God’s presence — makes a place holy. God repeatedly promises his presence, saying “I am” (vv. 6, 14) and “I will be with you” (v. 12).

To us, too, God promises His presence, saying “I am” and “I will be with you.” With you and me, with people in San Ignacio and Mexico City, in classrooms and conference rooms, in coffee shops and cubicles. Turning our very ground into holy ground.