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For the Healing of the Nations 4: The Flight From (And To) Conversation

May 14, 2012

A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church

on the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 13, 2012

 Acts 10: 44-48          John 15: 9-17

Before the Gospel reading I invited the congregation to hold up any cell phones, smart phones or iPads they might have with them. Then I invited those who use these kinds of devices to add their hands. Then I invited those who spend any time at all communicating through the internet on their desktop computers to add their hands. Most hands were up at this point, as well as a significant number devices. With “communication” in mind, we were prepared to listen for the Word of God.

 [John 15:9-17]

A couple of weeks ago, Sherry Turkle, a psychologist and professor at M.I.T., published an opinion piece in the New York Times that has been quite a sensation (The Flight from Conversation, April 21, 2012). It was about the cell phones and smart phones; the PDAs, Blackberrys, Androids, iPhones and iPads that are a so much a part of our lives – and the social media we use : email, facebook, twitter, linked in, classmates, – the entire blogosphere. After fifteen years studying technologies of mobile connection, Turkle suggests that “the little devices most of us carry around are so powerful that they change not only what we do, but also who we are.”

Families and friends sit together and read facebook posts and twitter feeds to one another (I’ve been guilty of that.) We’ve become used to having conversations interrupted by calls from others. I have two friends who challenge their smart phones to a race to see who find the truth of a disputed fact – the actress who appeared in an old film, the date of particular court decision. I can’t reach August’s babysitter by phone or email, but she invariably responds to texts.

The other day I saw four young men together at a restaurant. They had already ordered their food, and now sat in their respective corners of the table, all four heads bowed, texting or gaming on their mobile devices. It was silent. No one spoke a word until the food came. No one looked at another. Apparently it is becoming a new skill to maintain eye contact while covertly texting someone else.

“We live in a technological universe in which we are always communicating,” she writes. “And yet we have sacrificed conversation for mere connection.”  Does that ring true to you?  We are, these days, connected to a lot of people, “linked in” so to speak, but not necessarily conversing.

Turkle writes about why connection is preferred to conversation saying, “In the silence of connection, people are comforted by being in touch with a lot of people — carefully kept at bay. We can’t get enough of one another if we can use technology to keep one another at distances we can control: not too close, not too far, just right. I think of it as a Goldilocks effect.”

On the other hand, human relationships are rich; they’re messy and demanding.

“FACE-TO-FACE conversation unfolds slowly. It teaches patience. “In conversation we tend to one another. (The word itself [she points out] is kinetic; it’s derived from words that mean to move, together.) We can attend to tone and nuance. In conversation, we are called upon to see things from another’s point of view. When we communicate on our digital devices, we learn different habits. As we ramp up the volume and velocity of online connections, we start to expect faster answers. To get these, we ask one another simpler questions; we dumb down our communications, even on the most important matters. It is as though we have all put ourselves on cable news.”

I’ve quoted liberally from the article to suggest that it is worth reading and talking about, whether you think you are likely to feel the pangs of recognition and guilt that I felt, or think this is just about others. You can find the article online by following a link on my blog.

But in reflecting, I came to think of another reason we might flee conversation. It is not just that real conversation can be difficult, and we would rather feel safe in our connections with others rather than vulnerable in our conversation. There are some conversations we flee because we have been rejected. I think of the gay youth who comes out to his parents – only to meet rejection. The sinner who tries to come clean to her community – only to meet judgment.  In other words, conversation has always been hard and always been risky.  Perhaps in the 21st century with our electronic devices and social media, we’ve just acquired another defensive tool with which to protect ourselves from such pain and rejection.  We are connected; but don’t ask us for much more than the cryptic or cute line we’ve just typed on our facebook post.

And social media itself has been a terrible tool in the hands of bullies, automatically exposing to billions of people worldwide, the humiliations they visit upon their victims.  And from sexting to porn, these technological advances have exposed us and our children in ways that were unimaginable a decade ago.

During the Arab spring, social media was lauded as an essential tool for rapidly organizing and communicating with democracy activists, reminding masses of people to stay non-violent.  So powerful was this medium that Egypt shut down its web access for days, and social media was also used by repressive regimes or groups that thought violence was the best way.

Of course social media can also provide community – even life-saving community, for people who are isolated because of geography or the intolerance of others in their community.  I think of the online discussion groups like “It Gets Better” for GLBTQ persons who are in that coming out process.  And here we see that social media, though it can be used simply, to “connect” can also, provide a new kind of community an electronic face-to-face when no real human face of love is available.

And yet these media are different, public for the most part, and add increased anxiety as much as connection to our lives.  Think of how workplaces distribute iPhones, Blackberries and Androids and expect 24 x 7 responsiveness from their workers.  The boundary between work and rest gets obliterated, we are forever interrupted, there is rarely time apart/unplugged, we react more than we think because showing “responsiveness” is more important than having a good response!

In our text from John today, Jesus invites us to abide in him and promises that he will abide in us.  He calls us his friends and uses the image of the vine and branches to illustrate what it means for us to abide with one another.  To abide.  Let’s think about the English meanings of that word for a moment.  Webster’s suggests the following: for the active verb – that’s something we do, to abide means to await or to wait for; to withstand or endure without yielding, to tolerate.  For the passive verb, that’s when something is done to us, to abide means to remain in a stable state or to sojourn; to continue in a particular place.

In both its active and passive forms, “to abide” requires time, patience, strength, forbearance, and dedication to a place or community.  These are some of the qualities that Turkle says are necessary for conversation.  She talks of the need to drink deeply, to literally gulp, from one another in conversation that is a far cry from the tepid and timid sip, sip, sip we do in connection.

* Do you think it’s possible through the new media of communication we have to inject these qualities of taking time, showing patience, strength, forbearance and dedication to place or community? Is it possible do you think to inject these into our technological communications?

* Have you experienced this?

* How do you think we might best go about this?

[At this point I invited the congregation to have a five minute conversation with those around them on these questions. They went really well. I concluded with just one story – below the image.]

For some time now we have been making faith sharing a regular part of worship: members of our congregation sharing part of their faith journey, faith struggles and answered prayers, their formation in community and risk taking in mission. Last Sunday one of our young people shared with us her appreciation for the support she has received growing up here. I have begun posting these faith statements on our blog, and last week received on back.

You see, a couple of weeks ago I got an email from a former member who now lives in Florida. She had visited our website, appreciated what she found there about life together, but wanted to see more photos of the sanctuary. I wrote back and suggested she visit us on facebook, where we have many more photos and regularly update them. The next day she became a fan on our facebook page. As a result, she not receives our church stories in her newsfeed, as well as sermons and blog posts. Well, she read our young person’s faith statement, and wrote back with her own. With her permission, I’d like to share it with you.

Thank you for sharing this. I grew up in WPPC and it was indeed family. That was back in the 50s and 60s and my faith journey began. My dad said years after – every time the church doors were opened you were there. It was a place of love, acceptance and frankly safety in a turbulent time. I am no longer in White Plains, but wherever I have moved the examples set by WPPC have led me to where to worship. That is what a church needs to do – to give us roots to grow and wings to fly. I have a dear friend who is a minister who tells his congregations – The youth are not the church of tomorrow, they are the church of today. Thank you WPPC!

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