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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

When Lent is over, will penitence persist?

At the entrance to the school, my friend's husband holds the door open for the twins. Colin and Andrew play London Bridge and slide under his arm. From my car window, I see the tremors of his right hand, watch his fingers open and close involuntarily. It's the Parkinson’s that puppeteers, a disease for which this forty-something is far too young. I follow him out of the parking lot, and we stop at the red light. I feel tremors of my own.

Moving to take off the glove from my right hand, I suddenly remember that I am fasting from this: fasting from filling all of life's inanimate seconds and empty spaces with virtual connection.

I think of his hand. The way it shakes. Without Facebook, with Twitter, without a quick scan of email, my restless mind settles into prayer.

"God, can you be with these friends in all of their tremulous uncertainties? God, can you grant them the stability of your grace? Can you be present to them in all of their fears?"

Yesterday, I asked God, "Does it do anything, Lord? Do these prayers every really help anyone?" I'd been feeling the impotence of my life and fearing the impotence of my prayers. Nevertheless, this one moment at the stoplight is real. I am present. In my body. Attentive to the close-at-hand brokenness, to the ever-closer Spirit.

The light changes, and as I turn east, the sun blazes a hello that fingers through the trees. I remember how yesterday's sky had hung dense and grey and thick like a shroud and feel gratitude for the change. I take too little notice of these things, I think. And remember Paul's hand.

I'm not used to seeing beyond the screen of my iPhone.

* * * * *

Divided heart 1 I wrote this journal entry during the first week of Lent after having decided to give up 24/7 connectivity and restrict myself to very limited Internet access (or rather, having the Lenten fast decided for me by the Spirit). I wrote more about my intention for her.meneutics in an essay entitled, "Patience is an Offline Virtue":

"For Lent, I decided to fast as remedy for distractibility. I wanted to practice real presence with God and with others, the kind that didn't suffer hurry or disinterest. If it felt urgent to recover unmediated centeredness, the truth is, when home went "dark," I panicked. All my technological tics surfaced. At stoplights, in the grocery checkout line, or halfway through a book chapter, I reached for my smartphone like an amputee trying to move a phantom limb. Without it, I suddenly discovered all the crevices in the day I filled with digital retreat. Without it, I was left to my boredom, to my self-doubt, to a thousand voices of inner restlessness."

As Lent draws to a close, I wanted to reflect on the impact this has had on me. It's probably best to say I haven't learned as much as I've experienced.

Without constant access to the Internet, I've lingered at the dinner table and listened better to my children. I've prayed at stoplights and woken up more slowly, thanking God for my husband's warm breath on my face. (I've slept later, too.) I've scooped kids into my lap, read more stories, and more patiently answered questions like, "Are sharks and dolphins on the same team?" I've read books, not blogs, and called friends rather than emailed. I've hosted dinner parties and cleaned out the crawlspace. I've noticed cashiers' nametags, drummed my fingers to music playing at the butcher, even left my phone at the piano teacher's house, not missing it until Ryan picked it up for me the following afternoon. I've spent undistracted hours in study and writing - and missed big announcements. (Teach Us to Want was nominated as a finalist for the EPCA book awards - woohoo!)

I've also missed texts and voicemails. (Sorry about that.)

But if this sounds too Pollyanna for you, let me also say that I've broken my fast three times - twice to download books at home, once to try and find Phyllis Schlafly on YouTube, giving her 1972 "American women have never had it so good" speech. (Huh?) I've wondered if practically disappearing from social media has insured I've been forgotten. I've discovered new strategies for postponing serious Bible reading in the morning. (What used to be The New York Times has now become whatever book I'm reading: this morning, Kathy Keller's short book, Jesus, Justice, and Gender Roles.) The tics are still there: I still swipe to unlock my phone and hope for some activity that will insure my life is notable and noticed. I want to matter and wish for notifications, my heart still surging when there are, plummeting when there aren't.

Forty days is a boon, but it isn't a cure. I know I will continue to struggle to use my time (and technology) wisely. I know the disordered desires that drive me toward overuse and overinvestment aren't reformed yet. But here are some thoughts of what I might do differently as more permanent practices of penitence and presence.

1. Honor the sacred hours.

This is Christina Crook's phrase, and I love it. There is something sacred for me about the morning hours of every day. (When you're up at 5 am, there are more of them to enjoy.) Without having to obligatorily check email or social media or even the news, I've begun the day with so much less static in my head. I pray. I read. I plan the day (and then feet pitter-patter down the stairs). Priorities are so much clearer when the voices are fewer. What if I continued this and didn't allow myself to check in online until after breakfast and the kids were off to school? I've certainly learned the delay won't kill me. There are far fewer urgent tasks that I used to believe.

And what if I continued spending evening hours as I've been spending them: with a book; with my husband, reading aloud paragraphs from Dorothy Sayers, Are Women Human?; with my children, playing "Things" or cuddling on the couch, learning that my son composes lines of poetry in his head? What does the quick scroll through my favorite home decorating blogs ever really achieve after the sun has dipped below the horizon line and I entitle myself to the "break"? Is my life better for the constant stream of distraction? What do I lose from my embodied life when I choose presence in my virtual one?

2. Keep the Sabbath.

I'm wondering if a weekly Sabbath from 24/7 connectivity may be an important practice for me. I don't have to wait until next Lent to re-orient myself more fully to the presence of Christ and the presence of people. I can regularly disconnect from my technologies to practice presence. And what better day to do it than the day I've consecrated for worship?

3. Plan (and limit) my Internet use.

Because I've only checked in online outside my home, it usually means that when I do get to the library or Starbucks, I have a limited amount of time to do the most pressing tasks. I've had to make a list of the emails to send and the research to do in order to make the most of my online time. This is something Christina suggests in her book. She reminds readers that the Internet is a tool. It should serve us, not we it. So rather than losing my way (and wasting my time) in the stickiness of the web, which preys on distractibility, I can think ahead to what is really needed. (My compulsive self made a little spreadsheet with three columns: email/social media/research. The only irony was: without wifi, I couldn't print it.)

I've found a little planning tends to allow the non-essentials to fall off the list. Just this morning, I started thinking of an email that I wanted to send to my editor. By the time I'd dropped the kids off from school, I realized I wasn't ready yet to propose the idea I had for her. I needed a few more weeks to consider it, and in fact, I'd likely be seeing her in person by then. If the idea persisted, I'd propose it then. If I realized it was a hair-brained scheme, I'd abandon it. Either way, we'd have a face-to-face conversation, which is always a better solution than a sterile email thread.

I have fears that I won't make these permanent changes. As John Owen, the Puritan writer has attested, we are fickle and frail in our fight against sin. “Men are galled with the guilt of a sin that has prevailed over them; they instantly promise to themselves and God that they will do so no more; they watch over themselves and pray for a season until this heat waxes cold and the sense of sin is worn off—and so mortifying goes also, and sin returns to its former dominion,” (Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers, 60). But I am praying for the lasting transformation only God can effect in my heart: I want commitment to God's purposes more than I want convenience. I want my life to be mediated by communion with the Holy Spirit, not my iPhone. I want to recover a sense of my own humanness, I want to grow into greater humility, and I want to wear the mantle of ministry well. As Phil Ryken, President of Wheaton College, noted in my interview with him, ministry is about prayer and presence. These are burdens even as they are blessings. I carry them less faithfully when I'm tethered to technology. I carry them better when I'm not.

We are never as faithful as we intend to be. I know this. But I also know the Father finishes every good work he begins in and through Christ (Phil. 1:6).