The Word in a Digital World: Reflections to the Presbyterian Writers Guild

Many have requested this post, and here it is. Last week at the Presbyterian Church (USA)'s General Assembly, I had the honor of addressing the Presbyterian Writers Guild at their biennial luncheon as recipient of their David Steele Distinguished Writer Award. (I still can't quite get over that.)

Here's a pic from that lovely day--I'm here with Robert and my friend Catherine Cuellar:

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Here is what I said. You can also access the video on Facebook. (It's public, so you shouldn't need a Facebook account in order to view it.)

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Thank you so much for the chance to be with you all today and for this lovely, humbling honor. It's always good to be with other writers, isn't it? We're an odd bunch. A couple of years ago Robert De Niro was presenting one of the screenplay awards at the Academy Awards and said this: “The mind of a writer can be a truly terrifying thing. Isolated, neurotic, caffeine-addled, crippled by procrastination, consumed by feelings of panic, self-loathing, and soul-crushing inadequacy. And that’s on a good day.”

Today is a very good day.

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...It was two days before Christmas, some 13 years ago. I was an associate pastor at a medium sized church, and with Christmas Eve services planned and everything in place, I found myself with an afternoon with nothing to do. It’s well known among friends and family that I am an absolute fanatic for Christmas music. I like the cheesy stuff, the melancholy stuff, the traditional Bing Crosby stuff, and yes, the religious stuff. So on a whim that afternoon, I set up a blog on a very primitive blogging platform and wrote a silly piece listing all of my favorite Christmas music, categorizing it and providing commentary on various songs. Incidentally, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is THE best Christmas song and the case is closed on that.

It was my first blog post. 

Now, writing was always a part of my life. As a young person I wrote bad poetry and rudimentary song lyrics and even completed about 4 pages of a novel when I was maybe 10 years old. I think it was about dogs living in the pound and I’m sure it borrowed heavily from Lady and the Tramp. This lack of originality bothered me at the time, because nobody ever told me that when you’re first starting to write you spend a lot of time emulating, copying, trying on the ideas of others and making them your own.

Ira Glass has talked about this, by the way--this gap between our sense of what’s good and our ability to create something good, especially when you’re starting out. “For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit.” 

Anyway, I became an English major in college, I worked on the school newspaper and for a magazine, and my first job out of school was as a technical writer and a writer of training materials for companies. Later as a preacher I wrote countless sermons for my local congregation, Montreat Youth Conferences and other gatherings.

But until I wrote that taxonomy of Christmas music, I had always written for specific and pre-determined audiences. Until I wrote that blog post, I had never flung my work into the world and wondered who might stumble across it. And I remember the first time someone that I didn’t know commented on something I’d written. It felt like inching through a bunch of coats and stumbling into Narnia, a larger world, a lovely one, but also a harrowing one at times. Blogging is one of the reasons I am a writer today. 

But that didn’t come until much later. For a long time, my blog was for my own personal amusement and that of my mother, my siblings, and a few friends. I wrote my second blog post a month later, reflecting on the one-year anniversary of my father’s death. I wrote it after an APCE conference I attended in which Susan Andrews, presiding at the communion table, mis-read a bit of liturgy that said “Love is stronger than death.” And what she said was, “Love is stranger than death.” And in that blog post I reflected on the fact that someone had written some words on paper, sturdy words, reliable ones, and yet somehow the Holy Spirit intervened and said “I am going to transform that cliche into something much more enthralling.”

And how often that happens from the pulpit. And it happens with writing too. The listener or reader hears things you never really intended; the words inhabit them in a way you never could have predicted. I say to people all the time, and I mean quite sincerely, that I write the books and essays and sermons and articles that I want to read and say the things that I need to hear. I am my first audience, so it startles me to find other people are listening in. People will quote me back to me, and I always feel a little exposed, like someone’s walked into the bathroom while I’m singing to myself in the shower.

I’ll never forget the time I wrote and preached a kind of “leap of faith” sermon and a parishioner said, “Thanks to your sermon I’ve finally decided to follow my heart and move to Florida like I’ve been dreaming about. I’m going to sell my house," and so forth and I’m thinking “No, don’t do this! Don’t upend your life because of some words that came out of my mouth! I’m just saying stuff up here!”

And yet the preachers and writers in the room know that the words can have that power. 

Recently my husband Robert, who is also my in-house tech support, was doing some housekeeping of our various technological miscellany and he asked about these blogs I’ve been writing for the last 13 years. I’m currently on my third generation blog, and he said, “You know, we really ought to put these posts into some kind of bound volume.” There are services that will do that for you. And so Robert started working his way through the process until he finally came to me and said, “I don’t think this is going to work.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Because the first six years alone will come out to be 800 pages.”

Eight hundred pages... of blogs.

And that’s not even counting the comments on those blog posts. And I know many of you are thinking, “The comments?!? Why would you want to keep the comments?” And I agree, online comments are the best evidence we have for the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity. But it didn’t used to be this way. There was a time when blog comments were like online salons. Comment forums were the places where a community of people riffed on scripture and culture and theology. The place where half-baked ideas continued to cook until the toothpick inserted into the center finally came out clean. The place where I confronted critics and trolls. I’ve been fortunate to have relatively few of the latter; the former hopefully made me better.

I bring all this up about blogging because I stand here as the recipient of this very kind award, very aware that the other people who have stood in this spot have stood on a sturdy platform of the many books they have written. And I feel a bit wobbly up here, because so many of my words have not been bound on a page but are zipping among the electrons. Yes, I have contributed chapters and essays and poems in various anthologies, and two years ago when the General Assembly voted to change the Book of Order to allow same-sex marriage, I was invited to contribute an essay to TIME about that event. And yes, I have a book under my belt and am working on a second.

But what I also have are thousands of words that have in some sense washed away, like a Navajo sand painting, created for a particular place and time and then gone, its purpose complete, its destiny fulfilled. 

And so my selection, which humbles me more than I could ever express, is also a sign of the times. It’s likely that in the future, the recipients of this award will do way more of their writing online and in short form than in bound volumes, perhaps using media that haven’t even been invented yet. Because that’s how we all write now. We keep hearing about how ours is becoming more and more of a visual culture. But the fact is, we are awash in words—more words and more ways to write and deliver words to one another than ever before in human history.

Meanwhile, we find ourselves in a time when words can seem so cheap. The laws of supply and demand have not been kind to words—there are so many that their value seems to have plummeted. We’ve got a glut in the market, you see, and so they dissolve into the ether, scroll off the bottom of the page, here today and gone tomorrow, drowned in the noise of 24/7 news and entertainment.

But that’s part of the joy and challenge of being a writer right now. I think a lot of writers long to write or publish a book because they want to create something that will last. We want to leave an artifact behind, something that proves we were here. (I did have an author friend who sniffed, “I don’t think about that stuff when I write,” but I suspect she was lying.) We have an eye toward longevity and legacy. But the instant availability of communication brings our lofty goals back into the present moment and what really matters: to focus on communicating meaning right now, right here, with the people God has placed in our lives. “The kingdom of heaven is at hand,” in other words, not when the book comes out.

The other challenge of the digital age is to figure out the best platform to say what you want to say. We have so many options now: Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Blog, Book, Essay, Article, Text Message, Email. Marshall McLuhan could hardly know when he wrote, “the medium is the message,” exactly how on point he would be. And the medium we choose is vital.

...When the members of Grace Episcopal Church arrived one Sunday morning for worship a few years back, they found a startling question spray-painted on the side of their building in two-foot-high letters. The question was, “Will I still go to heaven if I kill myself?”

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After some reflection, Father Thomas Broad and the church arrived at this answer: “God loves you with no exceptions.”

Now if Father Tom had written that into a sermon, it would have been a good response. If he’d put it in a newsletter article, or used it as the title for a Sunday School series, it would have been fine. Adequate.

But instead they spray-painted it on the side of their building, next to the original question.

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And that made it a beautiful response.

Beautiful because it spoke in the same raw painful vernacular of the question itself. Beautiful because it ensured that the questioner would actually see the answer. And beautiful, because that image traveled way beyond the humble borders of Randolph, New York to computer screens and smartphones around the world—to people who needed to hear that gospel: God loves you with no exceptions.

If you’re a writer who hopes to publish, you’ve had it drilled into your head that you’re supposed to build a platform. Publishers want to know that you have access to an audience online who will read and review and champion your work. This can lead to a cynicism about the work we do online. We grudgingly set up a Facebook author page, and we hunt around for best practices to help our work “go viral.”

But even if you’re not seeking to be published, any of us who writes or who cares about words, can easily despair at how superficial and mean the marketplace of ideas seems to be.

But here’s the thing about all those words. We have a choice.

We get to decide whether to give in to despair at the cheapening word, or lament the death of the book, or to crack the code so we can get noticed and go viral. Or we can see every word we write as opportunity, to use these media for connection, for the sharing of words that are fine and careful and witty, to connect authentically with other human beings.

We get to decide whether to lose hope that our words still matter, or decide to make the most of the words we do put into the world.

Whether Twitter is a noisy place for superficiality and snark in cheap 140-character bursts, or a place to carefully craft our own modern-day haiku.

Whether Facebook is a den of banality, or an opportunity for a modern-day Paul the Apostle to write letters to the church, and to the world. And then to engage the responses to those letters.

And all of that writing that we do online is… well, it isn’t gone. It’s still on hard drives and up in the cloud, wherever that is. And I often mine from old blog posts of mine and other online sources when I’m working on a project… because I believe no creative endeavor is ever wasted. But I also know that writing isn’t ever truly gone because it somehow gets into the spiritual cells of the people who read it and take it to heart. It feels grandiose to say that writing, like all art, changes people. Yet I can say it in all humility because it’s not something that I do, or that any of us does, regardless of the kind of writing we pursue.

It is the alchemy of the Spirit, working through us—working through all our hours of hunting for just the right word, or finally giving up and hoping the imperfect word will do. It’s the Spirit working through the vulnerability of climbing into a pulpit every Sunday after relentless Sunday, or pressing “Send” on the book proposal, or submitting an Op-Ed to the local newspaper, or composing an email, or writing a post on Facebook in the wake of Orlando that tries to be prophetic and pastoral and winsome.

I’m still a big fan of books. I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to write them and see them through to publication. As Presbyterians, we are people who love books and I don’t see that changing. But more than that, we’re people of the Word. And words. And we know that words that challenge, and heal, and delight, and transform, are the words that matter, whether they flow into a book or a blog or a message on Snapchat.

Jesus understood this. We think of Jesus as a great teacher and orator, and he was. But Jesus was also, apparently, a writer. Well, he wrote at least once. We have a record of it in John 8. But he didn’t write on papyrus. He didn’t compile his thoughts in a scroll.

Jesus wrote using the only material he had available at that moment—the dirt on the ground. When the Jewish authorities bring him a woman whom they had deemed guilty of adultery, it’s a test to see what he’ll do.

And what he does is he bends down and starts writing. And this is important: he’s not doodling, he’s not drawing a diagram, he’s writing. But what is he writing? We will never know. Those words are gone to the elements and to history. Perhaps they were words that Jesus himself needed to read, something that would help give him the strength and courage for this encounter. Or perhaps he’s writing a message for the Pharisees. Or for the woman.

Maybe what he was writing was “God loves you with no exceptions.”

And so should we. In book and on blog, in text and Twitter, in poetry and prose, in fiction and non-fiction. When you come down to it, it is a message for this and every age.