Say It with Flowers... Or a Text?

Trådtelefon-illustration A couple of weeks ago I led a workshop at the Festival of Homiletics called The Word in a 140-Character World: Faithful Preaching in the Digital Age. It was a variation on the Spirituality in the Smartphone Age material I’ve been presenting for a while now.

I speak and write a lot about technology, and at the heart of much of my work is discernment—discernment around questions like How much social media is too much? Am I presenting an authentic picture of myself to the world? Does this interaction build community or tear it down?

One piece of the discernment we don’t talk about enough is how we decide which medium to use for various communication tasks. Back in the olden days, you pretty much had in-person or the Pony Express. Now we have in person, phone, text, letter, email, direct message, posting on someone’s Facebook wall, tweeting “at” someone, SnapChat, etc. How we say it is almost as important as what we say. (The medium is the message, still and always.)

I’ve had several experiences recently that reinforced the power of good discernment. They are all quite simple, but really speak to how powerful it is when you get the medium right.

  1. Following the workshop, I got an email from someone who suggested a word change to one of my slides to make it clearer. The person made a joke in his email: I’m sending you this while sitting in the same room as you, and could probably tell you in person but I’ll do this instead. It would have been splendid for him to stay and offer his comment face to face, but email was better because now I have a written record of his feedback so I won’t forget. Also the writer sensed, I think, that the suggestion was an emotionally neutral one, which makes email an appropriate venue for it.
  2. By contrast, a woman waited in the “chat line” to let me know—in a very constructive but pointed way—that the images I used in my presentation were not representative of the fullness of humanity, racially and gender-wise. “What you are saying is important and you don’t want your message to be undermined,” she said, by predominantly male and white images. She was right—and I realized, while I think a lot about what I say, the images are often the last (and sometimes, sadly, last-minute) addition to the presentation. While it was not easy to hear her feedback in person, it was so much more constructive than emailing me, or even worse, tweeting it, which is what often happens at conferences when people are rankled by something a speaker says or does. I’ve rarely seen that go in a constructive direction—in fact, folks ending up jumping on the bandwagon to the point that the speaker can feel attacked, even if the initial criticism was valid. Incidentally, this person also took the time to wait until the crowd had died down, which was not necessary but certainly disarming.
  3. My grandmother passed away a week ago. I have received a ton of condolence messages from people, and believe me when I tell you I appreciate them all. But I also received a phone call from a college friend. He left a wonderful, compassionate voice mail that comforted me greatly. I wouldn’t call his phone call a complete surprise, since he and I have stayed in touch in recent years. But the message was exceptional because I was not expecting to hear from him in person. I share this, not to make anyone feel bad who sent me an electronic message instead of calling. Rather it was a lesson for ME. How often do I choose the easy, expedient way, rather than the way of deeper connection?

We really are in the guinea pig generation. We have more ways to communicate than ever before. As a result, we must be attentive to the how, not just the what.

How have you seen the right medium enhance a message you sent or received? And how have you seen a message get undermined by the manner in which it was conveyed? I'd love to hear.

Emailing Beyond the Grave

medium_15612803237I'm a big fan of David Eagleman, author, neuroscientist, and fellow Rice grad (peck 'em Owls!). His book Sum: Forty Tales of the Afterlives is one of the most imaginative, dare I say spirit-filled books I've read in recent years. And he's a mainstay on Radiolab. Eagleman has a startup venture (a few years old by now) called Deathswitch, which lets people schedule various technological actions that occur in the event of their deaths. You set the system to contact you every so often and ask for a password in reply. If you do not answer, the system assumes you have died, which triggers whatever actions you designate---sending password and bank information to your executor, say, or emailing crucial files to co-workers. But the beauty of the system is, you can set any action or message you want. So you can write a note to your spouse that gets sent on your 50th anniversary, for example---or get the last word in an argument. (Or both: Happy anniversary, my darling. You'll always be my lobster. And we WERE on a break.)

One of my favorite chapters in this tech book I'm writing (Lord will it ever get done?) is the one on death, and how technology impacts the way we grieve. I find the idea of a deathswitch fascinating. And Eagleman's jovial optimism is appealing: he "likes to imagine the many sensational messages, waiting to be delivered: unexpected declarations of love, confessions of secrets or crimes, or the location of buried cash."

It also raises some compelling questions. What would it be like to receive love notes from a long-deceased spouse who remains frozen in time, as the recipient ages and changes? Would these messages become a burden? If this technology takes off and someone declines to participate, will the absence of a message at key moments cause further sadness? How does a continued "relationship" help or hinder the grieving process?

On a positive note, what a gift it would be to think about what you'd like to say to your children and loved ones in the future. You can do this "legacy" work regardless of technology, to be sure, and many people do... but knowing that these messages will be delivered (rather than forgotten in a desk drawer somewhere) gives the task an increased sense of purpose and urgency.

What do you think? Would you partake of this technology? What would your deathswitches be?

photo credit: StencilArchive.org via photopin cc

In Praise of Clippings in a Digital World

I'm working slowly and steadily on a new book, Spirituality in the Smartphone Age. The scope of the book is still taking shape, but I'm currently ruminating on everything from selfie culture (it's not as terrible as you think) to cultivating a sense of mystery at a time when everything can be Googled. One of the joys of working on a new project is having people send pertinent articles and books my way. My friend Barbara has been one of the most faithful sharers of information with me. I can't count the number of tidbits she's sent my way over the past year or so. But she's been sharing them not through emailed links, or texts, or even phone calls saying, "Be sure to catch the article in the Wall Street Journal about how historians are having a hard time doing their work in the age of email."

photoShe's been sending me clippings. Actual, cut-from-the newspaper clippings.

Every week or two I'll get a letter in the mail with Barbara's efficient script on the envelope, and a folded-up geometric wonder of newsprint or glossy magazine paper inside, often paper-clipped to a short note containing a personal update.

Clipping, note, envelope, stamp, address.

I love it.

Regular readers of this blog know that I am a power user of Evernote. I scan much of the kids' artwork to cut down on clutter. My iPhone is my personal assistant and more. But there's something so fantastic about holding these physical pieces of paper in my hands. I feel cared for. Barbara's clippings, now a good-sized pile, are a tangible reminder that this project matters to someone. An emailed link, while greatly appreciated, doesn't convey that nearly as much.

Let me spoil the ending of my book for you. I will likely land somewhere in the vicinity of "Our digital/technological culture is neither good nor bad in itself. What we need is thoughtfulness about when, where, and how much," and hopefully offer some wisdom and tips in that discernment.

But somewhere in there, I'll be singing the praises of clippings.

~

Image is from one of Barbara's clippings, referencing Jonathan Haidt's book The Righteous Mind: "people are more likely to be moved by information that challenges their prejudices if they're prevented from responding to it straightaway and it has time to sink in, to steep. Is there enough such time these days?"

Friday Link Love: Free to Be You and Me, Jovan Belcher's Guns, and Rocks That Defy Gravity

Lots and lots of links! Part of me wants to save some for next week. But I'm trying to follow Annie Dillard's advice to "spend it all... Something more will arise for later." So here goes: ~

She Who Dies with the Most Likes Wins -- Jessica Valenti, The Nation

On the ways successful women still struggle to be liked... and why they (we?) need to get over it.

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The Balanced Rock Sculptures of Michael Grab -- Colossal

They rely solely on gravity, yet seem to defy it:

blog-5-2

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Free to Be... You and Me Turns 40 -- Slate

Forty years ago this fall, a bunch of feminists released an album. They wanted to change … everything.

Great couple of articles about the classic album/TV special/phenom.

(I almost called F2B a "seminal" work of the movement, but... no. Heh.)

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Jovan Belcher's Guns -- Amy Sullivan, New Yorker

This is the best piece I've read on that appalling murder-suicide:

Costas’s critics... responded by counting out the ways in which Belcher could have killed both Perkins and himself without a gun—a morbid, reality-denying game. ...[One] suggested that Belcher could have driven his car into a wall. There are men who do that. But guns make everything faster and deadlier—they remove the space for doubt and regret, reaction and rescue. Recognizing this does nothing to exculpate Belcher; ignoring it is beyond obstinate.

Costas and Whitlock were not addressing gun legality, but gun culture. Not hunting rifle culture or antique collector culture---handgun as weapon and "protection" culture.

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Kentucky Doctor Joins Growing Movement to Keep a Sabbath -- Courier-Journal

Anyone read Matthew Sleeth's book 24/6 yet? I haven't, though it looks good:

The principle [of Sabbath] is at least as valid today as it was in ancient times when it was incorporated in the Ten Commandments, says Matthew Sleeth of Wilmore, Ky., a former emergency-room doctor who launched a Christian ministry to promote environmental care.

“Now we’re consuming seven days a week,” said Sleeth, author of the new book “24/6: A Prescription for a Healthier, Happier Life.”

“The problem with that is it’s not very fulfilling spiritually, and I don’t actually think it’s sustainable economically,” he said. “... And it’s bad for the planet.”

On another note, how do I get me some news coverage like this for Sabbath in the Suburbs?

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Creativity Blocked? Try a Common-Scents Solution -- Pacific Standard

Sleep + orange vanilla scent = creativity. Who knew?

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A Dash of Cold Water for Christian Anarchism -- Geez, John G. Stackhouse Jr.

Many years ago, during a meeting with the ministry preparation committee of my presbytery, I made what I thought was an uncontroversial statement: that while Jesus' life was a model for Christian living in a general sense, he was not my model for ministry in a specific sense. As a married woman who held down a job and paid rent and expected to live longer than 33 years and needed to plan for it, I didn't see Jesus' ministry as a paint-by-numbers enterprise so much as an overarching ethos.

This really bothered one member of the committee, by the way. Everyone else got what I was saying. Anyway, this article reminded me of that encounter. The question isn't WWJD so much as WWJHUD (What Would Jesus Have Us Do). Christian anarchism isn't a term I'm familiar with, but we do have our Christian purists out there whom Stackhouse could be addressing as well:

Jesus, I clearly saw [in my youth] (and clear-sightedness is one of the benefits of this point of view), collaborated with no institution and endorsed no regime. His gospel was a message of creative freedom, individual dignity and mutual responsibility and care. He and his disciples enjoyed tramping about the countryside, living on the margins, engaging people as they found them, giving to each according to his or her need. Small was, indeed, beautiful.

So why in the world wouldn’t we do the same?

Two reasons: We aren’t Jesus. And living just like Jesus doesn’t get done what Jesus wants done.

...For Jesus wants what God wants, and God’s first commandment in the Bible is to make shalom – to take the good world that God has made and to cultivate it, to make something of it, to encounter every situation and try to make it better. Note: God’s commandment is not to “stay pure,” a kind of double negative that is typical of a lot of Christian ethics: “Don’t sin!” “Don’t get implicated in anything compromising!” “Don’t commit violence!” God’s commandment, then and now, is a positive one: cultivate. Make things better. It’s not enough to say, “See, Lord? I kept the talent you gave me and didn’t lose a penny of it. My record is unbesmirched by moral compromise. I didn’t get much done, sure, but I didn’t come even close to risking my purity.”

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A Conversation between A Mother and Her Son -- StoryCorps/YouTube

I originally saw this on Upworthy, which provides the description:

You can learn a lot from a kid, especially from a super-insightful kid like Joshua Littman, who happens to have Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism that makes social interactions difficult. Don't miss his question for his mom at 2:43... and his mom's response at 2:50.

It's a StoryCorps piece that was sweetly animated by The Rauch Brothers.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=eO7sKVKMO2s]

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Dance v. PowerPoint: A Modest Proposal -- John Bohannon and Black Label Movement

Use dance to convey information instead of PowerPoint. There are worse ideas...

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=0nqhopRhju4]

h/t Teri Peterson for this link.

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Remains of the Day -- Matt Mendelsohn, Washingtonian

Long but worth-it article in which a photographer tracks down some of the couples whose weddings he photographed. Here's the money quote for clergy, who have a front-row seat for these sometimes bizarre festivities:

Jesus, as wedding photographers are reminded each week, performed his first miracle at a wedding in Cana. Of course, there’s no photographic evidence. Probably for the best. Had there been a photographer that day in Galilee, the world might today be looking at a picture of a bride and groom posed sexily in some ox cart, lit from behind by a strobe hidden in the hay, holding balloons while drinking wine out of Mason jars and gazing adoringly at each other.

That’s the current state of the art.

It’s no longer enough to take wedding pictures that show a bride and groom in love—dancing, whispering during dinner, playing with a nephew or niece. These days, wedding pictures are elaborate, photographer-contrived setups that show the newlyweds kissing in a wheat field (as if it were a natural act to go wheat-harvesting on one’s wedding day) or aboard an old-time fire engine.

Eighteen years in, we look at our photos so rarely. Of course we got married before the wheat-field trend started. But I doubt we'd look at them any more frequently if it had, except to chuckle at how clueless we were on our wedding day. Everyone is, of course. Maybe wheat-harvesting photos somehow highlight that fact.

Have a wonderful weekend...

Because I Will Reflect on Anything... Even a Facebook Kerfuffle.

Quite the kerfuffle on Facebook yesterday over this devotional about the "spiritual but not religious." People felt very strongly about it, and I even got defriended over the discussion. And because I will ponder anything, even a FB kerfuffle:

If you want commentary on the piece itself, I recommend this and this, and my friend Martha offered her own meditation on "SBNRs" (written several years ago) here. This blog isn't really about the post itself, except I wanna say this: I'm kinda over the word "spiritual." I think the shift is toward something different that doesn't have a name yet: embodied? incarnational? grounded? integrated?

Anyway, today I'm thinking more about writing, how we communicate and how we reflect on that communication.

Many clergy friends gave virtual high fives that the writer finally said what needed to be said about the shallowness that often emanates from some who call themselves spiritual but not religious. Others admitted the tone was snarky and smug, too focused on the speck in the SBNR's eye and completely ignoring the log in the church's, and not a great thing to have out there if we claim to be an evangelistic people. But, they argue, the germ of an idea was sound. (My husband, a product manager, offered, "Sounds like a classic venting-about-the-customers thing. Everybody does it, but not to the customers.")

My personal view is that voice cannot be separated from message. Tone is not a dropcloth that can be removed with a flourish and stowed away, revealing the true work of art underneath. It's baked right in. "Set aside X and Y and her point is valid," some folks said in defense of the piece. But I don't think you can set those things aside.

My writing group deals with this problem often after several years together. I've been told more times than I can count, "I know what you're trying to say because I know you and the experience you're describing, but it's not at all clear from the words on this page." or "I get your point, but you come off really sarcastic here---was that what you were going for?"

That's what the kerfuffle was about. Words on a page. (OK, screen.) People who know the writer personally consider her a lovely person. I have no reason to doubt that. But that's beside the point when it comes to this piece of writing, which should be evaluated on its own merits. Does it work? Does it work in this genre? Does it communicate what she wants to communicate?

This completely freaks me out, by the way. Come fall 2012, it will be my words that are evaluated. Maybe even critiqued. Maybe even critiqued harshly and pointedly. There may be readers who cross the line and make it personal. But not all sharp critique is personal. Remind me of this next year, Gentle Readers, when some doofus on the Internet makes me cry. Help me sift through what's helpful but hard to hear. Help me find a safe place to put that. And help me take everything else, tie it to the tail of a kite, fly it into a strong wind, and cut the string.

But the stuff I write doesn't get a pass just because I'm a nice person.

That's the work of community. That's what the piece tried to emphasize---and failed, in my opinion, because of what was used to leaven it.

One final thing. On the Internet, there is no place for the church to talk to itself internally without the general public listening in. That includes, sadly, a lecture given by the speaker to a room full of pastors, which is readily available too. That's neither good nor bad, it just is. We live in Terry Benedict's casino in Ocean's 11: "In my hotels, there's always someone watching."

All right then... what's next?

Friday Link Love

A few choice tidbits I ran across this week: Why You Should Use Emoticons in Your E-mails

Until keyboards can actually perceive the emotional content of our digital messages (not so far off!), emoticons may be the simplest method of clarifying tone. I've had to let go of my own perception that emoticons are silly. They may currently be our best tool for elevating the emotional clarity of digital messages.

Do you agree? Hmm, let me think... :-

The Science of Heartlessness

We've all encountered people with such divergent attitudes toward suffering -- and it often brings up a rather prickly question: Why are some of us bleeding hearts while others have hearts of stone? Science actually provides us with a number of clues.

I blogged some time ago about the ways that religious communities might encourage deeper generosity. This article is a different spin on a related topic, but looking from the point of view of brain chemistry and evolution. Fascinating stuff.

Are Goals Necessary?

The author, Chris Guillebeau, asked this question on his Facebook page. My favorite response from one of his readers:

I’m reminded of Spike Milligan’s snippet of wisdom: “We haven’t got a plan so nothing can go wrong!”

That will preach, my friends.

Guillebeau's conclusion:

I’d never say that everyone needs to set goals, but I do notice that some of the objections to goal-setting always focus on “living in the present” and not letting life pass you by due to being too focused on goals.

My view is that the odds of life passing you by are much higher if you have no plan for life itself—which is why I like Barbara’s analogy [see the original post]. You’re not going to miss anything! In fact, you’ll probably have the opportunity to give and receive more than you would otherwise.

Agreed.

13 Writing Tips from Chuck Palahniuk

I don't write fiction so it doesn't all apply to me, and I'm not sure I agree with it all anyway, but an interesting read nonetheless... and a good sendoff for next week. Speaking of which...

So, before Christmas I wrote a blogpost about gift-giving and the fact that experiences often make people happier than the accumulation more stuff. Apparently Robert took that to heart because for my birthday he presented me with a "coupon" for a writing retreat at a place he found on the James River. There is something in it for Robert, of course---as he put it, "It's in my interest to help you get a good start on this book, so as to minimize the craziness around deadline time."

I just laughed.

Still, I am elated... and filled with gratitude to have a spouse who is so supportive of the stuff I do.

I might toss some stuff up here to prime the pump next week, but otherwise... see you in a while.

Image: Where I'll be. Gratitude...