Who do we Follow?

When I was a kid, I loved watching cartoons after school and on Saturday mornings. Sitting in front of the TV with a snack, life couldn’t seem to be any better than when entertained by a bunch of animated creatures.

One of my favorite programs to watch was The Bugs Bunny & Tweety Show. Each of the characters had their own unique personality and I always enjoyed the various storylines, no matter who was featured.

Of course, for many people these days, any word similar to “tweet” can really only be associated with one thing: Twitter.

The social media juggernaut has built a worldwide presence and serves as a popular outlet for people to connect with one another or offer their opinions on virtually everything to anyone who will listen – or, rather, follow.

The subject of social networks like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat invariably pops up in my Religious Education classes when discussing the influence of social media and secular society on our world today.

The vast majority of my students in any given class will have an account for at least one – if not more – of these networks.

Twitter 1After tracking their popularity online, we will then rummage through various celebrities’ accounts, curious to learn how many people follow the lives of the rich and famous.

For example, Oprah Winfrey, a Twitter user since January 2009, has 37.2 million followers of her account, which includes 12,000 messages, or tweets.

Donald Trump has built a following of 31.4 million users and has tweeted 35,000 times since joining Twitter in March 2009.

Miley Cyrus has held an account for less time, joining Twitter in March 2011. Since then, she’s created a legion of 32.9 million followers, keeping them engaged with over 8,500 tweets.

My personal favorite – and one I use in class activities as a discussion point – is Justin Bieber. A user of Twitter since March 2009, he has tweeted roughly 30,600 times, with a whopping 96 million people following him across the globe, seemingly hanging on to every word or thought shared.

To contrast these celebrities with another well-known figure, I share with my students the Twitter account of Pope Francis.

Yes, the pope is on Twitter.

Jesus’ chief earthly representative has held an account since February 2012.

Using the moniker @Pontifex, Pope Francis has put out a total of just over 1,200 tweets with a following of 10.8 million people tracking his message on Twitter.

Twitter 2Doing the math, one could see how the pontiff has tweeted noticeably less frequently than his fellow celebrities, posting just a single idea almost every day, on average. Not only that, the nature of his tweets is far different, too.

While many people use Twitter as a valuable information tool (news media, for instance), many others – famous or not – often post for self-promotion purposes. Their accounts appear to exist for bragging in order to gain attention to themselves, while sharing senseless, superficial or crude content in their 140-character musings.

Pope Francis, on the other hand, shares thoughts that strive for the benefit and well-being of the entire world – especially the poor. His are notes of encouragement, feeding hope and serving the greater good through wholesome words of substance and prayer, while being both meaningful and inspirational.

Truly, as evidenced by his Twitter user name (a Latin term for “pope”), Pope Francis strives to live up to the translation of his title as a “bridge builder,” bringing people closer to God.

Indeed, much like the children’s game “Follow the leader,” I suppose the notion of Twitter followers can cause us to reflect on our own focus in life.

Who do we follow?

Do we invest our time and attention in false idols such as movie stars, professional athletes or even our personal friends, or do we focus on the life of the true leader – He who is the way, the truth and the life? (John 14:6)

What’s interesting to note about Twitter is not only how many people follow a person’s account, but also how many accounts that user follows.

To return to our sample of subjects mentioned above, Oprah Winfrey follows 279 accounts; Donald Trump follows 45; Miley Cyrus tunes into 372 other Twitter users and Justin Bieber tracks over 303,000 other accounts on Twitter.

Pope Francis? He follows a mere eight. Oh, and it should be noted those eight are simply his own Twitter account in different languages, allowing people of non-English backgrounds to receive God’s gospel message of love and encouragement.

Twitter 3Imagining Jesus had a Twitter account, I figure He would have 2.2 billion followers, or disciples, checking into His tweets of wisdom and direction.

In terms of who He would follow, I would guess He’d only link into the life of His Father and our Father in Heaven.

Then again, wanting to intimately know and be with all of us, maybe He’d have seven billion Twitter accounts He’d be following.

In the ever-changing and demanding society we find ourselves today, as Jesus calls us to follow Him (Matthew 4:19), we need only to ask ourselves if and how devotedly we actually do this.

Making the Cut

Our backyard neighbors recently had a large tree removed from their property.

They had replaced their fence surrounding their swimming pool, so I suppose the tree needed to be uprooted so the new fence could be installed.

It worked out perfectly for us, though, as the tree had long been leaning over the old fence on to our property, dropping plenty of leaves and dead branches.

A more serious threat, however, was a vine that was spreading ever so subtly from the tree across the fence, latching on to a beautiful maple tree on our lawn.

Of course, I had never noticed the vine until a good friend pointed it out a little while back, when he and his family were over for dinner.

We were playing with the kids in our back yard and appreciating the shade under the neighbors’ tree when he remarked the long vine crawling over on to our maple tree, starting to choke it like a parasite.

I am the Vine 3My friend then warned me about the vine, stressing the need to cut it before it continued to spread and wreak havoc on our maple tree, sucking the life out of it over time.

So, not long thereafter, I climbed up a ladder with a saw in hand and, like a surgeon, proceeded to remove the vine as if I were amputating a patient’s leg ravaged by bacteria.

Thankfully, such a chopping off of the vine preserved the life of our maple tree, encouraging it to continue thriving, rather than dying a gradual death.

Recalling that time got me thinking, however: what vines do we have in our lives that are slowly growing and suffocating us, preventing us from developing in healthy fashion?

Perhaps it is an ever-so-innocent temptation for a teenager from a friend to skip a class or shoplift some candy from a store.

Maybe it’s a flirting conversation with someone at work who gently and suggestively passes along his or her phone number at a time where you might be experiencing some frustrations in your own romantic relationship.

It could be that life has just gotten so busy for you and your family that your faith practice has fallen by the wayside. Whereas you and your parents used to go to church weekly when you were younger, you now find yourself rarely bringing your own children, given all of the preoccupations and commitments consuming your attention nowadays.

Much like the vine stifling our maple tree, if we are not careful in curbing dishonest or unrighteous behaviors, we risk the corruption of our character and the slow erosion of our relationship with God – and, by extension, others and ourselves.

Bit by bit, we can easily squeeze God and His teachings out of our lives, directing our focus to potentially and increasingly destructive practices.

For example, while it may seem far-fetched, skipping a high school class could put someone on a path that leads to smoking, underage drinking or an undesired teen pregnancy.

It’s not out of the realm of possibility that flirting with a colleague could eventually find someone in an unpleasant and costly marital breakup.

While a family used to pray each night, eat meals together regularly and attend church each Sunday, life could quickly become so distracting that they drift in different directions, losing an appreciation for God and one another in the process.

So, like any experienced arborist or gardener would tell you, occasional pruning of our life trees is essential in order to avoid the growth or spreading of any undesired vines.

But as villainous as this reflection might depict them, are all vines destructive?

I am the Vine 1Should we chop them all off at their very sight, or is there one vine we should actually cling to and whose life we should promote?

As Christians, we know Jesus to be the true vine, the root of all life that is good.

Our Lord assures us that, so long as we abide in Him, He will cleanse us and keep us strong as His branches. (John 15:5)

Leaning on Jesus in all that we do can ensure fruitful living and keep us on a path of prosperity.

With God as our guide, we can feel confident when encountering evil vines looking to infiltrate our lives.

I am the Vine 2Instead of falling prey to them as they strive to steer us away from our Heavenly destiny, with Jesus, we remain nurtured on a trail bringing us through the forest of Paradise.