January 2009

The internet is a funny thing. It makes that of our imaginations real; it shrinks distances to the length of a fingertip. It makes contact wildly easy, and true intimacy easy to forget. It makes careers and whole industries, and occasionally it destroys them. It breeds a kind of pseudo-anonymity that makes it easy to forget that the whole world is watching and that that world is composed of real people with real feelings and real faces. Years ago, chat rooms and email lists pioneered new language to describe the unbearably cruel barbs that became surprisingly common: flames, flame wars, flaming. And then the beginnings of a cure: emoticons (sideways smilies made with punctuation marks), which give us a shadow of facial cues to go with our language. We can smile, wink, laugh, stick out our tongues, even put on sunglasses for a cool look. They help. We also learned, in the early days of email, to keep the emotional conversations off the computer as much as possible. When things get tough the best course is to get together as soon as you can.

For a geographically dispersed congregation like ours, scattered across at least five different regions and many more communities, technology can be an incredible grace. We can email, social-network, even video chat our way into a kind of daily intimacy formerly only available to next-door neighbors. We are working on developing our online presence: website, Facebook page, sermon podcasts, and more. If we use these tools wisely, they can build exactly the kind of strength we need in our community; if we forget that we are people talking to people, if we forget appropriate boundaries, if we use them for hard conversations instead of for scheduling the hard conversations, if we let them depersonalize us, then we are in trouble.

But we can’t let fear of a conflict keep us from connection. These tools could have been custom-made for us. The technology has matured at last, and we are in exactly the right place to reap the benefits: very much wanting to know each other better, and too busy and dispersed to get together twice a week for coffee. We literally have the technology. Let’s use it.

I’ve been thinking about our church building lately. It was built like a New England farmhouse, one piece at a time, with what and whom we had available. We have space for worship, space for community, space for education. But although this congregation’s unifying value undoubtedly centers around relationship and connection, the community room is the least beautified and most neglected. It has tired furniture and makeshift organization. Soon, we’ll be looking at a changed space–the sprinkler tanks that have so long occupied the corner will be gone, made unnecessary by our upcoming connection to city water. It is a time of great potential for transformative change, change that will allow us to shape the space according to both our needs and our values and to honor the sweat and labor that members put into building that room.

It doesn’t have to be complicated. It doesn’t have to be expensive. But our space deserves our respect and our attention. Let’s dream a little. What would make it a brilliant space, a gem of our building–for socializing, for meeting, for making and nurturing connections? What would make coffee hour sweet and comfortable; what would make large meetings energetic and warm and productive? What else might we do there? Worship? Dancing? Workshops? What would let us feel like we are held in the heart of our building? What would give us another wonderful space for ourselves and the larger community?

This space, like all spaces, should serve our community and reflect our beliefs. How can we make that happen?

I grew up in the suburbs of New York. Graffiti was a way of life and an art form. Sure, it was illegal, but if it was beautiful enough it could win you over, and often did.

CNET has a photo gallery of “green” graffiti now–no spray cans, just creativity. Some of it is digital, but some is not.

What can we transform?

The Fetzer Institute was started with money from the sale of massive media holdings. It is privately owned. It works only on its own projects.

Its focus? Love and forgiveness. They have a retreat center and a meeting space and a wide range of programs. Read about it here.

I wonder what we could do with our churches that would serve our community like that. Ideas?


…and terrible for my schedule. No office hours today.

Google mail added a new feature recently: the ability to “skin” one’s mail page with a theme graphic and color scheme. I chose mountains. With ocean and trees, mountains round out the trinity of my heart–the three things that are always with me, and that I cannot do without. Living in Minnesota almost killed me, beautiful though it is.

So any chance to put trees (on my iGoogle homepage), mountains (on my Google mail page), or ocean (my desktop background) before me is a good thing.

Here’s what I’ve noticed: if I don’t clear the decks regularly, the trees and mountains and ocean pebbles get covered and I stop seeing them. If I don’t change the scenery it becomes invisible. And if I don’t make a conscious effort to see the beauty around me–the postcard-perfect view on my way to work or the sun shooting across the kitchen floor–I miss it.

In eighteen years of living less than two hours’ travel from the Twin Towers, I never went to the top, not once. And now I never will.

What are you taking for granted?

So print publishers are struggling, newspapers are going out of business, independent presses and novelists are having a heck of a time. Whether or not computers and Kindles are sounding the death knell for books as we know them, they are becoming a part of the publishing landscape. In a time when major booksellers control most of what gets printed and therefore most of what is available, period, the web and electronics are pushing back. Novelists and creatives of every stripe are working with forward-thinking geeks to work with the technology and open up the possibilities.

Nicola Griffith, author of a number of exquisitely crafted, every-word-chosen-for-a-reason print novels, is working with her fans to develop a new cooperative publishing model. It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s grassroots, and she’s got a lot of people on board. Read about it here: Ask Nicola.

Publishing doesn’t get much more democratic. The best writers will write, the best artists will illustrate, but everyone can do something to make this project go. Check it out!