One of my New Years resolutions this year was to write a letter each week to a significant person in my life. I mean a poorly-scribbled, pen-to-paper letter. (And you may be saying, “So where’s my letter?!”) I also use Facebook messenger, texting, WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter, and all sorts of other innovations. But, like so many people, social media is losing its lustre in my eyes. The platform seems to dull connection rather than heighten them. So I am trying to get more basic. I have my own farm-to-table approach to communication; I want those I love to know who grew their note in a palpable way — I sign my letters with my own hand.
More devices, less communication
The more communication devices we have, the more distance there seems to be in the world. Some days the disconnection we experience in the church is palpable. We are getting forced apart by choices to connect at minimal levels with quick, minimal devices [old Sherry Turkle Ted talk]. As a church, we keep talking about this surplus-opportunity- yet-dearth of communication all the time. Because we are fully adapted to the devices and the social networks that dominate them, and we wonder if they will quench the Spirit, if they haven’t already. The newness contained in one cell phone (which is probably giving you cancer) is downright terrifying. Facing the overwhelming pressure of rapacious capitalism applied to communication is hard to combat. But Trump’s tweets are sending people for the doors — he’s so bad we can’t miss how the systems are set up to abuse us.
Some people among Circle of Hope advocate severely restricting all use of machines to interact. They have a point. And I am not judging them when I note, “There are Amish in every age of the church.” Lord knows I often wish I were living off the grid in the Anza-Borrego desert somewhere collecting dew for my garden. And I am back to handwriting letters! So I relate to that application of “resist and restore.” Newness is usually suspicious and often frightening. The Amish said “enough” in about the 1880’s. But I think we have to admit that the newest form of the same old evil is much scarier than the old evil to which we already conformed. For instance, the old school farming practices of the Amish pollute the Chesapeake Bay watershed. They might feel righteous for not adapting to new ways, but their old ways had some evil in them too.
I am usually more on the other side of the argument. I want the latest technology with which to communicate and to work. I can’t get it fast enough. I am even Google-ized now. I even downloaded (and used!) Venmo this week. I want to discern what evil the technology carries and resist it. But I also want to seize the opportunity it gives me and use it. As a church, talking about technology is hard. We have been talking about coming up with a “theology of technology” for years. But we can’t quite get there. I suppose it is because we are like Asian carp — too busy adapting to our new environment to think about what it means to be an invasive species.
1) We’re too busy mastering the changing technology. We don’t have time to think about whether we have anything to say about it. That’s pretty scary since it means that the technology already runs us, we don’t run it. [Not over Smashing Pumpkins].
2) We are too small-minded to have a group project like coming up with our own thoughts about what new technology means to us. We are doing very individualized stuff and don’t see group thinking as possible. Our thoughts can be as small as our screens. If you wonder why we can’t connect and break up shortly after we do, don’t underestimate how technology has atomized us and how we have adapted to the illusion of togetherness the media perpetrates. We are sitting ducks for huge forces because we inept at getting together in real time.
Seven years ago, a 25-year old blogger from the East Village wrote down seven things a twentysomething can’t do. Now he’s 32, but I think things may have become even more pronounced. Six of his seven things had to do with building decent relationships, mostly about communicating. We’re all losing our capacity to connect. We want to do it. The many devices we are being sold to communicate could increase our ability to connect, and in some great ways, they have. For instance, I really like texting about where I am and when we are meeting, and about what laundry detergent to buy. But my experience is that people who fully commit to the phone screen for communicating are too small to really do it. They may be wired, but they are not always connected.
My “big” discipline: read email
The powers are determined to make us all rats in their cages. They dominate the devices and conform them to proper rat-usage. SO, I think we should sit down and read our email.
I admit, I don’t seem to know how to have this discussion yet. One time the Cell Leader Coordinators talked about it and they had what, for them, amounts to a spat. I said that I need to read my email on a big screen, which gives more honor to the writer and their art. I don’t think we should do major communicating as the body while we have ten seconds at a stoplight to scan an email or blog post.
I know, that mentality seems unrealistic, kind of Amish. Nevertheless, right now, part of my discipline of communicating is to read my properly filtered email, daily. As you know, I send quite a bit of it, as well. Circle of Hope feels like a major inbox loader for people who haven’t shut off notifications to their phone and feel like they are holding a pulsing, overstuffed screen in their hand. Some people unsubscribe from the Covenant List because they count it as clutter! Some of the cell leaders don’t even read the the info email from their pastor each week, or all the way through. Some of the Leadership Team don’t even take time to read emails they use to lead the church with some integrity and vision. It is a challenge to be that disciplined and committed, but it makes a difference as to whether we are knit together meaningfully.
These are four reasons I still read email and don’t encourage people to use my cell phone for texting, even when I give them the number, unless it is a texting subject (like “tacos or pho?”).
1) I’m trying to communicate.
To me, communicating is about relating, not just data. I want to say something I actually thought about and receive a thoughtful reply. That seems more like love is growing in the world. I don’t want to merely pass out info and have data hogs sniff around to see if it is something they want to consume. Dialogue creates deeper community. When we can’t be face to face, heartfelt writing can be a decent replacement.
It is hard to keep up with my email. I would rather talk face to face or in a meeting or even over the phone (although I’m not always that great over the phone). But those ways of communicating are hard to keep up with too. Communicating is hard. But I still want to hear more and connect more with more people. To be the church, we need to listen to one another and listen to the Spirit in one another. That takes quite a bit of listening in quite a few ways.
[The opposite is also true, of course. If you are addicted to checking email because you think some life-altering message is in you inbox, that’s not so good. More is usually the enemy of something. Checking email more does not necessarily mean you are listening more. Here’s a link for the addicts.]
3) It is good to slow down and connect.
All this sounds kind of strange, I guess, coming from a person who was there when the original email was sent back in the 70’s. It was so amazingly fast then! Now, sitting down in front of a screen and composing something thoughtful and loving seems like it is kind of old fashioned. Maybe this is my nod to the “Amish” types. The new Amish-types are often people who still know how to write in a language other than textese.
Being alone, concentrating, and writing, are all good, meditative ways to be who we are in Christ and live a life of love. I am writing this with love, too. It takes time. Even as I write, I am facing the cost of acting this way — there seems to be so much to do! But the writing is helping me to be. The way you pause to read and respond is helping you to be, as well, I hope.
4) I am committed to good infrastructure that extends the kingdom.
At this point, email has been a great way to connect the disparate elements of Circle of Hope. Every year, as we grow larger and add more congregations, we have a big challenge to be one church. We are always pushed to be smaller units, if not just random individuals. Holding together by speaking the truth in love is a major counterattack on the powers that want to dominate us. Our cells and Sunday Meetings are the major ways we express our commitment to being an incarnation of Jesus. But by the time they are over they can instantly be run over my the next media avalanche. We need a daily means of togetherness. Our computers and email can help us if we think about what’s going on.
Hey, if you got this far in this blog post, I feel loved. Thanks. You honor me, like I have tried to honor you with my time and thinking. That is splendidly weird and Jesus-like, and it won’t go for nothing.