Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Biggest Social Network

The big thing today - and especially among teenagers - are social networking websites on the Internet. And while Facebook is the largest and most popular such website, there are literally thousands out there that a person can use to connect with other people, stay in touch, share similar interests and ideas, and waste a whole lot of time if one has a mind to.

I have a Facebook page, and when I began it a few years ago I saw it as an extension of the ministry I do at St. William of York. And for the most part I still do. I'm sure you've heard the old adage "If you can't say something nice don't say anything at all." Well, I live on my Facebook page pretty much by another saying I heard some years ago - "If you wouldn't say it to someone in the back of church after Mass don't say it at all." And I think that's a pretty good standard to live by, because by and large I don't think I say anything in church that I'll get in trouble for.

When I first set up my page it wasn't a big deal. I figured since this was the way teens were connecting with each other I had to be on top of it because I work with teens. And soon I found I had connected with ten, then maybe twenty young people. Soon I added some colleagues in ministry, some close friends, a few relatives. In no time I had 40-50 "friends" I was connecting with, and it was nice. It always surprised me looking at some of the young people's pages to find they had 100, 200, and 500, perhaps 1,000 or more "friends" that they had connected with. Now I know for young people many of them were adding anyone and everyone to their "friends" list - chance encounters, people they met once at a conference or concert, whatever. I was trying to be a little more discerning. People I talked with on a regular basis, people I know well.

But even that went by the wayside to some extent. Before long I had young people connecting with me that had come to youth group once. Parents of young people and parishioners at church. Relatives I hadn't seen in some time or see just once a year. In the last few months I've been contacted by half a dozen or so different people I was friends with in high school or grade school that I haven't talked to in 30 years or more.

And for the most part, it's been a nice experience. And it's also given me a better understanding of the lives all of us touch every day in our comings and goings. My "friends" list is rapidly closing in on 300. And that doesn't include many people I see and talk to often - the person that checks out my books at the library; people I work with in our school; people I see at church and work and at the grocery store and the gas station and throughout my neighborhood when I walk my dog. Yet these, too are people that in some way I touch their lives, and they in turn touch mine.

This is how Jesus' ministry began, grew, and grew rapidly. He started out with a small group of twelve followers. As time passed the number grew to dozens, then hundreds, and before long he was preaching before thousands. He did this without the benefit of a computer or the Internet or cell phones or the tools and devices we use to try and maintain connections and relationships with one another. In Mark's Gospel we read of an event when Jesus gathered a crowd around him - shortly after he had appointed his twelve disciples - and made it clear that the notion of "family" transcended blood relations. That being connected wasn't limited to just those people he walked and talked with, the ones he saw every day, the ones he would place his trust into to share and spread God's Word. He told those gathered "Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother."

Whoever does the will of God is my family. This was a bold statement, one that turns on its head the understanding of what it means to be family. It recognizes that what connects us is not just blood or friendship or Facebook or always being in close proximity to one another. What connects us most is common belief. Belief in God and Christ and the Holy Spirit. Belief in the Eucharist and worship and community. Belief in the power of prayer. Belief that we have a mission here to share the Gospel in everything we say and do. Belief that God forgives us for those times when we stray and don't reflect the Gospel in our words and actions. Belief that we must stand up for others, give to those in need, embrace those that are friendless and alone.

Christ was a master at social networking, a master at connecting with others. The center of a circle of friends and family that continues to grow in faith and love with the common goal of becoming one social network with God in the kingdom.

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