The Readings for the 11th Wednesday, Tempus per Annum
Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.Matthew 6:2b (NABRE)
MANY RECENT CONVERSATIONS have been around the topic of seeking validation. Your host became aware of this issue leaving his job history (of nearly 25 years) in the DotCom industry and moving back into Church work. One of the main changes was the way in which workers are treated. Don’t get me wrong: I wasn’t treated poorly in DotCommuslavia nor are I treated poorly in the parish where I work. In fact, in both places, the treatment is, I think, above average. It’s the how of the treatment that interests me at this moment.
In my previous line of work, praise and acclamation is not only a given, but perhaps the main point of most conversations. One constant feature of my day was verbal praise, emails filled with bouncing gifs, and a slack filled with emojis celebrating every aspect of my life and the lives of my coworkers. Hands in the air, rainbow flags, and – my personal favorite – the Party Parrot.
Leaving there to come to parish ministry, all those shenanigans went away. It was quite an ego collapse, let me tell you! For more than a few months I had no idea if I was doing my job correctly – or at all. There was no tradition of meetings starting with affirmations (prayer, yes, affirmation, no). There was no culture of positivity, there was no “design of personal empowerment”. Sigh, I can still speak the language. Anyway, (NEway, as the cool kids say) what came to me was that this was how the real world functions – a lot less smoke blowing and quite a lot of adulting.
Or another way to look at it would be to realize that a huge part of our culture is based on affirmation: what others think of me is important. What others do or say must be evaluated on how it makes me feel. If it does not affirm me, there’s a problem. If you don’t put a rainbow flag in your company logo for June, you’re a hater.
Jesus tell us not to seek the praise of others, nor to do anything in order to get that praise. Jesus tells us to do thinks not to be seen – in fact to hide away lest we be seen at all. Jesus suggests that we even keep the knowledge so secret that our left hand will not know what our right hand is doing.
There’s nothing wrong with praise – as such – but there is a lot wrong with praise seeking or even attention seeking. I struggle with this a lot because attention is the currency of the internet. That’s why I’ve owned Doxos.com since 1998 and why I’ve been e-journalling since before there were blogs at all. (I love that my blogger profile says Member Since October of 2001.) My original twitter number was in the low 600k. My FB account has been around since Mark first let non-college students join. (The original idea was only college students and only people who were known already by other members could join. Then this was opened up.) MySpace, LiveJournal, and a few other services were all places I could go for attention.
Attention seeking keeps you from growing up: from owning your opinions, from acting on your beliefs and – eventually – attention seeking makes you jealous of (and vindictive around) the interactions in this world of “Social Capital”. What will we do? When we act on our faith are we doing so to be seen doing so? When we hold back for the same reasons, what will become of us? Will Twitter Deplatform me if I speak out the truth about sexuality and human sexual differences? Or would I dare say that at all anyway? Conversely, am I saying them out loud just to get more attention? Clickbait is an artform.
And we already have our reward.
And the spiritual is no longer good enough: we can’t get the “hits” of likes from God who already loves us infinitely. There’s no more God-capital to get. So we need more social hits every day to make up for turning our back on infinity.
The curious thing is that, depending on your job, this behavior works at work. You have no reason in the secular world not to do this. Our entire person is external and socially constructed in that world. But in the Christian world, our personhood is internal: generated by God and involved only in authentic communion with other persons equally God-given. To be you requires an internal dynamic that has nothing to do with attention (social, sexual, or otherwise).
A Christian is set free from craving likes and tweets. We are called to focus on Jesus even when it means the world hates us. Think instead how may Catholics imagine persecution is coming. I mean, of course it is, but getting kicked off YouTube is not persecution!
We should pray, follow the rules of the faith (fasting, etc), or do the works of mercy (give charity) to please God and to work out our salvation in fear and trembling. But if we’re doing them to be seen, we already have the reward for which we are working. We did it for no spiritual reason at all – and so our reward is not spiritual.