Whether in public or private prayer, I have always included concerns for both the critical and the chronic issues faced by various parts of the world. Wars, famines, natural disasters, oppression, brutality—they are all issues that I place before God on a regular basis.
Most of the time, however, I have derived my concern from news reports or similar sources rather than from any personal connection. Living a rather sheltered American life in the Boston suburbs, I have rarely interacted with someone whose life was directly affected by crises outside the United States. Perhaps someone in the military or an international traveler fell within my circle of congregants or friends, but for the most part my prayers have been for those without names or faces that are known to me and whose circumstances I only generally understand.
And then came Twitter.
Like many, I scoffed at the service when it first came out. What of any substance could be said in 140 characters? Many pastors can't even come up with a sermon title that would fit that limit. As Twitter began to grow and gain more attention, I still didn't really get it, but neither did I want to be left in the technological dust. If the world was on Twitter, then I needed to be there or I would waive my right to be part of the world’s conversation. And so my Twitter account and user name, @revanner, came into being.1
As I have engaged with Twitter during the past nine months, I have discovered a simple yet profound truth: It's all about who you follow. It is because of the people whose tweets I chose to follow that my prayer life has been enriched and changed.
I like to be informed, so I follow a variety of news agencies, as well as individual news correspondents and columnists who provide links to their reporting. One of the reporters that I follow is Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times. In mid-February 2011, as Arab revolts began to ignite throughout the Middle East, he went to Bahrain. With the government trying to close off access to information, tweeting on a cell phone became one of the very few ways to communicate to the world what was happening. Nick Kristof began to tweet. Through his tweets I discovered National Public Radio social-media strategist Andy Carvin, and through Andy Carvin's tweets I became not just an observer, but a citizen of the world.
Andy Carvin retweeted journalists from Al Jazeera, as well as citizens on the ground in Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, and all the places of unrest in the world. And so I began to follow those people directly. Soon, by reading my Twitter feed, I found myself in the midst of a revolution with names, faces, and circumstances that could focus and direct my prayers in a way that even the best news sources could not.
It was march 15, 2011, and I crawled into bed about 11:30 PM and opened my Twitter feed on my phone:
"Telecommunication in Bahrain severely disrupted!! Gov't coordinated plan while sending out the army?!?!"
"Mobile communication in Bahrain is either too congested or has been cut off!!! People need to go to Martyrs Square immediately!!!"2
And began my prayers.
Oh, dear God, the people of Bahrain need you now. Their government is attacking them again:
"My battery is too low. Plz come to luluASAP. Help me."
"All voice communication is disabled in Bahrain & imminent attack on Pearl Roundabout!! No warning given & the army is moving in!"
Life is so unfair, God. Please stop the bloodbath . . . or mitigate it . . . or. . . . And get that guy a battery!
Just a few minutes before, I was unaware; but the Twitterverse never sleeps and as I stepped into the world outside my comfortable bedroom, I stepped into its chaos and pain. I looked at the dog curled at the bottom of my soft, warm bed and felt a kind of survivor guilt. I looked back at the parade of tweets:
"Mosques around . . . Allak Akbar Allak Akbar . . . Allah ur all we have <3"
"I don’t know if any of my international followers can do anything, but hell is breaking loose in Bahrain right now."
"Tanks over the highway heading to lulu Bahrain."
"This place is turning into a war zone."
Well, I'm an "international follower." What, honestly, can I do? I can pray, which I am doing. But I can also bear witness by retweeting (RT) these messages to my own followers. Most of them are also warm in their comfortable beds. I don’t wish them pain, but perhaps if all of us remembered the rest of the world, perhaps if all of us felt more connected to the mothers and sons, husbands and sisters being gunned down—maybe that would somehow make a difference:
"Why do I have a feeling today will b worst? :( and so will the next few days. God protect my family, friends and ppl."
"Please make any journalist you know cover what's happening in Bahrain this minute. We can't leave our houses."
"Friends around lulu confirm large presence of army vehicles, 4 army choppers in the sky . . . God help us all."
"So we can't sleep, or eat or live or think or breathe anymore—just fear and worry and anxiety."
It was after 1 AM and still I continued my geeky witness by retweeting the cries of distress and pain from the streets of Bahrain. Should I add my own comments to their tweets? No. My voice, pretending to know anything at all of their suffering, would be presumptive. RT, RT, RT as the clock inched its way toward 2 AM:
"Tweeps in Bahrain if you can't access internet, call on these numbers and leave a msg to tweet (3 numbers listed)"
"Ok. I hear the calls from the minarets now: mosques have loudspeakers and they are rousing people: Allah Akbar"
"I have been threatened not to take pics. Gun pointed at me."
I suddenly found my prayers were beginning and ending with "Allah Akbar." Well, God is great according to my Christian faith, too. Why not say it in Arabic? Why not join my voice to theirs? I wondered if I would be put on a terror watch list:
"Around 1000 people in lulu."
"Shouting heard, 'Hamad you traitor, we are here to die today.' "
"Calls from mosque for youth to rise and go to lulu. Speaker says the Saudi army is there now."
"Woke up hearing screams, ppl screaming. I can see army outside my window. Someone shouting out of mosque speakers that lulu has been attacked."
And of course all of that was mixed in with a Voice of America reporter in Tokyo reporting on aftershocks from the earthquake, a variety of folks sharing their NCAA brackets, and wisecrack comments about Charlie Sheen or Sarah Palin.
"Saudi Arabia is calling the shots in Bahrain now. US influence is shrinking."
The night was also shrinking. Now 3 AM: just over three hours of praying and reading and, in my own way, standing in solidarity and bearing witness to one of many injustices in the world.
Twitter is very much like getting in the car and driving into the city. You are suddenly part of a rush of activity that was going on well before you got there and that will continue long after you leave. Some of it is profound, some is sad, some is fun, some is stupid—it is life. You enter it, you do your part, then at some point your part is done, and you go home. You log out of the Twitterverse, you shut off the light, and you sleep—perhaps more grateful and aware of your own blessings.
As it turns out, you can convey quite a bit in 140 characters. Jesus famously summed up all the law and the prophets by saying (Matthew 22: 37, 39): "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. . . . Love your neighbor as yourself"—and had characters to spare. It can be done.
The service derided as a time-waster for those with narcissistic tendencies can also be the service that allows the cries of a hurting world to have names and faces, better enabling us to pray. It is all about who you follow.
- Editor's note: a short glossary of Twitter terms—Twitter: an international text-based messaging system, allowing users to send messages of a maximum of 140 characters; Tweet: as a verb, the act of posting a message on Twitter, and, as a noun, the name for such a post; Retweet (RT): to send someone else's Twitter post to your own followers; Follower: someone who subscribes to someone's Twitter messages or updates to a site; Tweeps: people that follow you on social networks, including Twitter.
- Editor's note: Martyrs' Square, Lulu, and Pearl Roundabout refer to the same central gathering place in Manama, the capital of Bahrain. Protestors gave it the name "Martyrs' Square" after several people were killed there in February 2011.
Anne Robertson served for thirteen years as a United Methodist minister before becoming executive director of the Massachusetts Bible Society in 2007. The author of three books, she also has written a blog for several years; for recent posts, see annerobertson.org.