When we were kids growing up on the Wirral, one of my favourite ways to spend a Sunday afternoon was running crazy along the sandstone ridges that overlook the Dee estuary. There was one particularly huge boulder, known locally as Thor’s Stone, which made the perfect spot for an old-school game of blocky. We’d exhaust ourselves, endlessly scrambling up and down its brick-red ruts and gullies.
And then, when there was virtually nothing left in our tanks, we’d climb to the top and settle down for our second favourite activity: carving out our names in the soft rock face with whatever natural implements we could find. It was fairly easy to do, that’s the thing with sandstone. And part of the fun was always coming back the next time to see if we could still find each other’s names.
I was recently reminded of these childhood escapades after spending some time in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes.
Ecclesiastes tends to carry a bit of a bad rep – and undeservedly so, I’d say. It’s a part of the Bible that’s often treated as if it were simply the cynical pontifications of some overly-dramatic philosophy undergrad who just read his first Nietzsche.
But in the Jewish calendar, Ecclesiastes was the assigned part of Scripture to be read aloud at harvest-time. In other words, it was considered the best fit for a season of thanksgiving and joy. Rather than being a manifesto for pessimism and despair, Ecclesiastes is a daring invitation to see life as it really is, helping us rediscover the joy of creaturely contentment.
The key Hebrew word ‘hebel’ is often translated as “meaningless” or “useless”, but in essence, meant vapour or breath. Think of the wisp of smoke that momentarily hangs in the air when you blow out a candle. That’s hebel.
Life isn’t meaningless, it’s a ‘breath’. A God-given breath, to be enjoyed as a gift from God while it lasts. And I think that should be a breath of fresh air to our generation. And I wonder if it’s particularly pertinent for how we approach social media.
We live at a time where personal branding and building your platform are par for the course. And because our culture prizes the notion of authenticity, personal profiles are inevitably becoming more prolific, even more than the organisation or ministry we’re part of.
But I wonder if much of our approach to ‘social’ comes pretty close to the image of eight-year-old me carving my name in that soft rock face. Are we building our own platforms, as if we could leave our own mark on the digital terrain around us? Am I simply seeking to make much of myself?
Of course, the rise of the #humblebrag hashtag is a nod to the reality that we all find this a temptation. I know I feel that tug and tension in my own heart.
There’s been a lot of talk recently about ‘virtue-signalling’, where the hyper-visibility of social media leads to users yielding to a digital form of ‘keeping up appearances’. What matters is not what we’re doing to support the event or cause in question, but that we’re seen to be doing it. But this mentality can be pervasive: what about hanging-with-the-right-people signalling, or look-at-the-ministry-I’m-doing signalling?
Of course, there’s something about the British mentality that means *most* of us would never have the guts to describes ourselves as a ‘thought-leader’ or ‘influencer’ on our Twitter profiles. We know that’s just not the way we roll round here – at least on this side of the pond! Instead we can subtly name-drop our ‘projects’ to our heart’s content, so long as we add a dash of self-deprecating humour to close.
But what’s the big deal? And is it our place to judge the intentions of the heart?
Of course, we’re all a mix of motives – and we will be this side of eternity. I’m just suggesting we let the wind of Ecclesiastes blow through our hearts.
Because one of Ecclesiastes’ key messages is the way it brutally plays out the consequences of living for gain. Not only do we consume ourselves, but we can consume each other, all in the process of trying to leave our mark. And yet, in the end, whatever name we made for ourselves will be like a sandcastle washed away in the on-coming tide of time and life. There today, but tomorrow the beach will show no sign of it. And when your goal has been to leave your mark, then flattened sand is never going to be good for your health. It’s no surprise that more and more studies are documenting how social media platforms increase feelings of low self-worth.
When I first began blogging I used to say “the problem isn’t with blogging, the problem is with our hearts”. In other words, you can use a medium to build others up or to blow yourself up; and the choice is simply yours. But now I think it’s more nuanced than that. The water we swim in has its own currents. We need to be conscious about the way that the culture(s) of social media encourage us to desire and value certain things, and to rationalise certain behaviours and thought-patterns. We may find ourselves justifying having a platform as a means for ministry, etc., but we’d also do well to do a spiritual double-take on our motives from time-to-time.
Instead, maybe a helpful image is that of gift and stewardship. If God is God, and I’m but a breath, then everything I have is a gift from Him. That shows me the folly of seeking to make a name for myself. It challenges me to examine my heart and recalibrate my motives as I strive for some sense of platform. And it liberates me from the pressure to carve my name into this temporary world’s landscape, as if that were the only way I could achieve significance. Instead I receive my significance from the one who gave me this very breath and who gives me a kingdom that can’t be shaken.
I was back home visiting the parents a few weeks back and we took a walk past Thor’s Stone. This time it was me holding my three-year old as she nervously but gleefully clambered along some of the rock’s lower ledges. And I looked hard, but I still couldn’t find my name.