Early on a Thursday morning, I felt my phone vibrate on the desk next to me. Usually an early morning text might be about a change of carpool plans, a reminder of an upcoming event, or a word of prayer from close friends I see regularly. However, on this morning, random texts of encouragement arrived – from two women that I do not get to see very often. In this moment of reading green text bubbles, my soul was filled, and I thought to myself, “This. This is the kingdom of God.”
Both types of text messages are the presence of community and spirit in the world today. One shows the steadiness of a life lived in daily community together, where our rhythms intertwine, and we are supported in our mundane tasks (cue “carpool”). The other demonstrates the in-breaking of the spirit into lives we do not touch every day. I was struck by the simplicity and ease in which a message of support or hope could instantly be carried across the country or just around the corner. What a gift.
The technology that rests at our fingertips can definitely be used in ways that do not show others the love of God. I even ranted about it in a previous article entitled “Walking Home.” However, we also are now equipped with the power to span time and distance and to be an encourager to so many with whom we have crossed paths. When Paul wanted to encourage the Thessalonians with a message of support like, “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing,” he had to find materials, write out a letter, enlist a messenger to deliver the letter, and wait weeks or even months to hear how the message was received (1 Thess. 5:11, NIV). How fortunate we are in this digital age to be able to take one minute to craft a message, send it immediately through cyberspace, and oftentimes receive immediate feedback of its impact!
So how can we use this technology as a spiritual practice? One thing I have tried to do in recent months is what I call “noticing the nudges.” You know when a random person comes across your mind that you have not talked to in a while? Then. Right then. Take out the phone and send a message of encouragement, a shared memory, or an affirmation of a quality you like about them. It is amazing the times I have followed these God-urgings only to find out how that person needed to be seen that day. Sometimes all we require to continue on, to push forward, to endure is someone to come alongside us and say, “I see you”– not “I can fix this” or “I will make this better” or “It will go away eventually.” We crave knowing that we are not alone.
I know many of us only made it through the isolation of the pandemic because of some well-timed memes on group messages. I cannot tell you how many times over the last two years someone sent just the right little piece of humor at just the right time. How could a picture of a 90’s sitcom star yelling “PIVOT!” save us? The joining of humor with understanding is a beautiful combination. The appropriate meme at the proper time can convey so many different important messages: “I see you,” “I am with you,” and “If we do not laugh, we will cry.” It is a way of really knowing someone – of paying attention to what is important to them, what drives them crazy, and what struggles they face.
There are messages my siblings send each other that only the three of us would understand given our shared family history. I can connect with my teenage son by listening to what is important to him and then sending just the right meme in response. Memes, gifs, and reels are truly a new form of language that harkens back to the old saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words” (or short video in some cases). It is a currency that is exchanged freely in younger generations and one that we can frame as a way of connecting to others to build community. And isn’t that what we as Christians should be about? Community allows for us to show our care and concern for others and live our lives in a way that others can sense the difference that living for Christ makes within us.
Wise and often humorous sayings have been a tool of instruction for thousands of years. The book of Proverbs contains many of the meme-worthy thoughts of scripture such as: “Better to live alone in a tumbledown shack than share a mansion with a nagging spouse” (Proverbs 21:9, MSG) or “Better to live in a tent in the wild than with a cross and petulant spouse” (Proverbs 21: 19, MSG). There are lots of mentions of “fools”, too, such as: “As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his folly” (Proverbs 26:11, NIV). Take vivid imagery, a dash of humor, and a cautionary tale mixed in, and you have the perfect making of a modern-day meme.
If you do not think God has a sense of humor, look a little more closely. When Miriam chastises Moses for marrying a Cushite woman, presumably with dark skin, God’s response to her prejudice is to give Miriam a skin disease that makes white patches on your skin (Numbers 12). Just a coincidence or a bit of irony? There are some real gems in the scriptures, like when God uses a talking donkey to convey truth to someone. Even people today find that funny – just look at the “Shrek” movie franchise. In my head, I can hear aged Sarah’s raucous belly-laugh when she overheard strangers discussing her fertility. An old woman having a baby to found a new nation? And have you seen a flamingo, giraffe, or platypus? Whoever created those has got to have a sense of humor.
I am sure, too, that Jesus had a sense of humor (since he was fully human), and can picture him being a little cheeky in using the nicknames for his closest friends. “Sons of Thunder” for two loud and boastful brothers? The “Rock” for an impulsive waffler? Can you imagine a disciples group text? Do you think they would have over-used the “mind blown” emoji? Or shrugging-shoulders-questioning-guy? I have a feeling eye-roll might have been a popular one at times, too, and that everyone would have gotten tired of Simon the Zealot’s exclamation point usage.
Supporting people by sending the perfect meme, text, or reel for the situation may not seem like a real form of Christian care like praying for someone or making them a meal. However, people need laughter and humor in their lives too. As theologian Karl Barth once said, “Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.” In the book of Job, Job’s friend, Bildad, tries to restore hope by telling Job that God “will yet fill your mouth with laughter and your lips with shouts of joy” (Job 8:21, NIV). This is the type of message I want from a friend—promise me the hope of laughing again because then I will know there is a way through it. God will restore the snorts, snickers, chuckles, belly-laughs, and tears of joy. To me, this is the definition of hope.
So, what are some ways you can make a spiritual practice out of messages and memes?
1) Pray your last ten texts. Go through each of your last ten texts and speak aloud a prayer for each situation or person. Take a minute to reach out and respond to a few of the people on your list and tell them something specific you are praying for them or send a meme to spark a laugh.
2) Include a new friend on a group text with other like-minded friends. Set up a new group text with people you would like to get to know better to share daily struggles and encouragement.
3) Consider becoming a mentor to a younger Christian who you can support with memes and messages that let them know they are seen and prayed for.
4) Include with those funny memes you share a real word of authentic care. Be explicit in letting people know how you care about them and are thinking about them. Share how special they are. They are a beloved child of God.
5) Notice the nudges from God and choose a different person to text encouragement to each morning. Pay special attention to those that lie outside your normal daily interactions.
6) Connect with a friend you think would be a good prayer partner. Make it a daily practice to pray for each other. Send messages with prayer requests. You can also encourage this with your teenagers.
7) Take pictures of daily interactions and special events. Text the pictures to the participants later to help remind them of the time you shared together.
Sometimes I believe people get bogged down in the notion that spiritual disciplines are a lot of work or are super serious undertakings. Instead, we need to recognize that spiritual disciplines are simply vehicles that convey us into the presence of the divine. How you get there is not nearly as important as the destination. Thus, a bit of humor and encouragement shared via a smartphone can draw us into that holy, “set apart”, space together. As writer and theologian Fredrick Buechner once said, “Laugh till you weep. Weep till there’s nothing left but to laugh at your weeping. In the end, it’s all one.”
Sarah Blackwell is a 2020 graduate of the Gardner-Webb School of Divinity. She enjoys working with youth and young adults at Providence Baptist Church-Charlotte. She is blessed to be on some great group texts that include just the right amount of prayerful support and sass. The people that make her laugh the most are her husband and two sons, 14 and 11, who mix wit, mimicry, and sarcastic humor excellently. Follow her writings at www.proximitytolove.org.