Pastoral Musings from Rain City

it's about 'what is church?' it's about whether 'emergent' is the latest Christian trend or something more substantial. it's musing on what it means to live the city, in America, in community, intergenerationally, at this time in history...

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Bread and Wine...virtually?

Having recently joined 'spacebook' or 'myface' (I can't remember which one), I've been intrigued by the level of virtual relationships traveling through the bandwidths of e-space, as we poke each other, write on each other's walls, and declare lots of things about ourselves, from 'status' to tastes in film and wine, to where we're going this weekend. Throw in text-messaging, and I begin to realize that I need never leave home - relationships can be virtually sustained in the warmth and safety of my attic.

I'll not moralize on the the merits of virtual relationships because there are surely good things to be gained by our staying in touch, just as these tools have already demonstrated their potential for abuse. However, I do ponder the effects this virtual world is having on our relationships in the real world. The easy access to people who are remote from us can surely lead to a dampening of our enthusiasm for being present with the real people who are right there in the room. I've watched students at a school where I teach leave the classroom during a break between lectures and pour outside, cell phones in hand, to either IM or call people who, however special they may be, aren't there, in that room, in the flesh.

Has the time invested in staying connected electronically infringed on our capacity to invest in real people who are in physical proximity to us, people like our neighbors and co-workers? If so, I'd suggest that we need to re-calibrate our time investment so that we're able to be present 'in the flesh' with these important people because, as Henri Nouwen once said, our primary calling is to be 'bread and wine' to the people in our lives, our friends, neighbors, family, even our enemies. This means actually talking to our neighbors face to face, taking them cookies once in a while, knowing their vacation plans and stopping to chat long enough at six AM when one is out running to discover that one of them is going to run the Boston Marathon next year. These tiny conversations, these movements in the real world, are important in and of themselves, and important because they provide the relational basis to bless and serve in times of need.

Yes, Nouwen was right. Bread and Wine we must be. But these things, powerful as they are as elements of redemption, lose their potency when reduced to pixels on a screen.

What do you think the effects of the virtual world have been on real relationships?


At 27/5/08 08:57, Blogger Meepsie-dom said...

Yes, I've also observed the person on the cell phone while the person they are walking with or sipping with waits. However, the renewal and enhancement of relationships by virtual means far outweighs the negative. My immediate family spans 8 time zones and we stay connected. A status feed on Facebook prompts me to pray for a friend's sister -- unlikely to have been mentioned one-on-one to me. I can go a little longer without the expense of seeing family face to face because we are communicating online. It is a great blessing.

At 27/5/08 13:20, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think there are pros and cons- the pros were mentioned in the above comment, and the cons were mentioned to some degree in your post.

I think, for me, the biggest (recent) pro was being able to feel like I had a support network in place already when we moved here a year ago- because of my blog I knew a couple people out here already, and had been able to keep in touch with a couple that moved here a few months before we did, whom I otherwise likely would have lost contact with. It also provided me a conduit for deepening friendships once I got out here. It's not been perfect- I still wish people would call me or just swing by or be spontaneous, but at least we occasionally get evites now ;)

I mentioned my blog post on the subject in my facebook note to you, and thought I'd give you the link here:

I'm looking forward to the rest of the comments on your post!

At 27/5/08 13:54, Blogger Dave said...

Presence is a powerful thing. Perhaps presence is something we need to get back too and treat our technology like tools that serve us not the other way around. Take for example people in days past who said goodbye when they moved, not, "check me out on my blog when you get a chance." Perhaps it was more difficult to say goodbye without the benefit of instant forms of cheap communication. As a result, people may have worked harder to connect in the places they found themselves in rather than rely on technology to keep them "connected" a term that seems to be looser and looser every day. Connecting should be flesh and blood as a primary point of connection not electrons and pixels. Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating tossing out technology but rather limiting technology and the time we spend tied to it. Are we the master or the servant here?

At 27/5/08 18:02, Blogger Mike Lu said...

Hey Richard--

I think you touch on some interesting points which apply very generally with not just social networking and text messages, but also the proliferation of an 'always connected' life. As you know, I pretty much live the leading edge of this lifestyle, with an iPhone in my pocket, a laptop in my bag, and communication avenues of a blog, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and multiple e-mail accounts. My normal reading also involves several dozen blogs surfaced through Google Reader. This may sound extreme in today's terms, but let's face it. Modern American society is only a few years from this.

I make this laundry list to illustrate one point. Whenever I'm in a situation where I can/should be stretching outside of my core comfort zone and entering into relationship with others, it's easier for me to reach for the safety blanket in my pocket or my bag and connect virtually with that which I'm already familiar with. I disengage in a hurry and I know I'm not alone in choosing comfort over discomfort.

However, not all is bleak. Social networking and all these virtual communication methods also foster different types of relationships--especially those which are completely inaccessible in person. Oren Sreenby, who's one of the top staff at the UW IT department, mentions this on his blog from a presentation he attended.

Facebook allows us to foster a different kind of relationship. Ones that span time, distance, and also social boundaries as well.

Time and distance are pretty clear cut--latent relationships can upgrade all the way into strong relationships. Erika recently re-discovered many friends in her past on Facebook and as a result, our travels through Europe were highlighted by warm welcoming home stays, amazing conversation, and deepened relationships.

Crossing social boundaries merits some discussion. I once asked Daniel L how he uses Facebook and he told me about how it's improved his relationship with the kids at youth group. During f2f interaction at youth group, Daniel is a leader/role-figure while the high school students are mentees. By natural social law, certain topics just never arise--weekend activities, certain interests, friends, activities, etc. But Daniel and his HS kids have also entered into the Facebook social contract--the contract which states that, "I give you permission to see my profile and read it." All the sudden, all these topics which were undisclosed are now out in the open. And unlike gossip, it's not taboo to bring them up in conversation and talk about them. I think this is great.

I think at the end of the day, like all things, it must be used in moderation. Facebook and other SN tools can be amazing facilitators but just like everything else, you can have too much of a good thing.

At 27/5/08 18:07, Blogger Thimbles aunt said...

I guess i'm just a talker. I found this blog by looking up a phrase and I've shared your words with friends & family. I'm on the other side of the country yet feel like a friend writes to me often (least your head swell I read several blogs) but you are who I respond to and I must admit quote from often.

At 29/5/08 08:09, Blogger Chad said...

well i sure think it's easy to fall into the trap of excess here - but in what part of life isn't it easy to fall into excess? i think that the virtual world can be well-used and a great tool, but it requires awareness and intentionality. so, considering that a lot of people don't appear to have much awareness or intentionality, i would say the the virtual world is a hindrance to real relationships in general. but on a case-by-case basis, is probably a good thing.

At 29/5/08 11:06, Blogger Sara said...

Richard - I agree that virtual living can rob us of our present opportunities. I also am grateful for the opportunity to give to and to receive encouragement from believers around the globe. Living in the middle east this year has created in me a great need for "true" fellowship with those who follow Christ. Certainly the small minority here pull together but I believe the internet has allowed our family to share in the greater Body of believers this year. Ryan and I send greetings from Israel. :)


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