The holiday season is here with all its Christmas programs, caroling and cookies. It is the season formally known as Advent. During this time of year, we are told in the book of Matthew, that we are called to enter and acknowledge the wilderness of our own sin and that of the world, in preparation for Christmas.
This may seem like an odd thing to be asked to do when we are surrounded by brightly colored Christmas lights, holiday parties, Christmas music and presents under the tree. This begs the question, why do we need to go into the wilderness to prepare our hearts for the birth of our Savior?
To answer this question, we must look to what the wilderness was like in Israel more than 2,000 years ago. The wilderness was outside of the safe walls of the city and considered dangerous. The people who lived there had no shelter from the elements or protection from the packs of wolves and hungry lions who hunted there. The residents of the wilderness included the blind, the lame, the leapers, the deaf, widows, orphans and the sick, especially those suffering from mental illness.
All of them were preyed upon by criminals as the wilderness was a lawless place with little vegetation, trees or food. The prophets of old called people out of their safe cities and well-fed lives to be reintroduced to the people that their society had cast out and forgotten. In the wilderness, people were called to face the sins of society and the part they had played in them.
So, where is God calling us to go to experience today's wilderness? Where is the dark corner of our world where the most vulnerable people are victimized daily? Personally, I believe it is right under our noses in our children's social media apps. It's a digital wilderness that includes Instagram, TikTok, YouTube and Snap Chat. Our kids are being victimized with about 50% of teens reporting that they have been cyberbullied in the past year and 20% of that group also reporting being driven to thoughts of suicide.
Today's predators live in the modern wilderness that we know as social media. They are masters at maintaining their anonymity, so that they don't get caught and are not blamed or sued for the consequences that result from their cyberbullying. My niece recently told me about her classmate who is being cyberbullied. His family life is a mess, and he works at a grocery store to feed his mom and siblings by bringing home dented cans and out-of-date meat and produce. He's a little socially awkward, but his classmates at his small grade school accepted him and valued his gifts.
Now he's attending the larger, central high school, where he has had a harder time fitting in. Anonymous cyberbullies have attacked him by creating a fake social media account in his name and using it to solicit little kids for sex. His peers think he's a pedophile, even though he had nothing to do with the creation of this account or the activities conducted on it. The cyberbullies seem to think this is funny and unlike the bullying I experienced in high school, where I could go to a safe home and a loving family each night, this cyber-bullying is unrelenting; 24/7, following kids home with their phones.
As a society of parents, grandparents, family and friends, how should we respond to this darkness? I believe that all of us are being called to enter it. We have a responsibility to start having conversations about cyber-bullying with the vulnerable teens in our lives. If they are being bullied, we must work to stop it. If they are a witness to others cyber-bullying vulnerable kids, encourage them to tell an adult, to stand up to the bullies online, and to reach out to the victims in person, like my niece did.
If you are a parent, I encourage you to:
- Use software to limit the time your teens spend on social media apps.
- Establish a “no-phone policy" at family meals and at other face-to-face social events.
- Have access to your kid's accounts and randomly monitor them. (This won't make you very popular with your kids, but it might just save their life or that of some other cyber-bullied kid. I promise you that what you see in this cyber wilderness will shock you.)
During this Advent season, Christ is inviting us to join him in the wilderness, by examining and acknowledging our own social sins. We all have the opportunity to become a light of help and hope for those in the darkness of the wilderness. I encourage you to be that light.