Be Real

Read Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

Burning the palms for Ash Wednesday (photo by Martin Malina 20 February 2023)

A year ago, my niece introduced a new social media app called BeReal to our teenaged daughter. How it works: BeReal sends a notification to you only once a day with a three-minute deadline to photograph whatever you’re doing in that moment. And then you need to post it to your online community. The thing is, you don’t know when that notification will arrive. The initial appeal was to show to the world only an ordinary, real—not staged—part of yourself and your life.

But, after being on the market almost a couple of years now, BeReal has declined sharply. Usage is down a whopping 95% from its peak last summer. Other apps have tried a similar approach and have also failed.[1]

The appeal of BeReal was its authenticity. It tried to counter what other apps such as Facebook, Instagram and SnapChat tend to create in the social media world: users showing only the best version of themselves. What BeReal wanted to do was address an unfortunate consequence of social media usage in general, a condition known as FOMO: the fear of missing out, because viewers only see the best in other people’s lives. And because they aren’t experiencing the same, many believe their lives aren’t as satisfying or as good.

The source of the problem is that people want to showcase only snapshots of their lives of which they are proud: places they visit on vacation, highlights of their day, venues they attend with others at restaurants and sporting events, selfies with celebrities, sayings and rants they want to publicize to ‘get a response’. These are the parts of ourselves we wish to show to the world. We want others to see how impressive we can be. Basically, bragging, showing off. 

We say we like authentic people but want only to show ‘the best’ of ourselves to the world. That is the deeper issue here.

Faithfulness to the Lenten journey counteracts this tendency in us. And it has a staying power unlike BeReal. The church has observed Lent for almost two thousand years. It is a healthy spiritual observance to temper these natural human tendencies in us all. 

Not to feel bad about ourselves. Not to believe we are unworthy. I’m not advocating putting oneself down, nor am I promoting self-renunciation. What I’m driving at is genuine humility, self-discipline, and unbounded love.

Lent starts on Ash Wednesday. We wear ashes on our foreheads. The ashes represent our mortality, our humanness. Wearing ashes does not symbolize the impressive part of ourselves. Do we have the nerve to resist wiping off the ash from our foreheads the moment we leave the church building? And keep it on as we stop at the grocery store or grab a bite to eat at a local restaurant on our way home from church?

Authenticity is finding the balance between the joy we have in believing that there is a glorious destination for our faith, on the one hand. And on the other hand, engaging the reality of the cross in our lives.

There is no spiritual bypass to get to that joy, that hope, that destination we seek. There is only the way through the wilderness, as Jesus led the way for us. Staying true to the path in the wilderness requires from us an active engagement with the world as it is, not as we want it to be. As is.

Lent invites us to engage the truth of our humanity. And this difficult journey—within ourselves and with others—calls us to be intentional, proactive and disciplined on this journey. No bypass. As Jesus went, so we must follow.

If you object, saying you don’t venture onto social media nor use it at all, I have observed a similar dynamic in the tradition of wearing your “Sunday best” to weekly worship. While there may be some benefit, spiritually, to ‘cleaning up’ once a week, this strategy fails as soon as we lay judgement on others who don’t dress up for church. Thankfully we’re past that time when it was a big deal.

Perhaps at the start of this journey, each of us can take stock in areas of our own lives where we tend to present only the best version of ourselves. And it’s hard, especially in the church, to show our real selves—to be real—which includes being open about our own vulnerabilities. But when we are, we receive a great gift from others – the grace, acceptance, and love of Christ. And it may even come as a surprise! And when we least expect it!

Lent invites us to spend the next forty days to explore this tension between the hope we have, and the real journey through the cross of Christ.

[1] @SashaKaletsky (twitter), February 8, 2023.

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