Hello, Family of God!
My, how the year flies! We are already one week into our Lenten season!
Frankly, sometimes the weeks fly by too fast for me to keep up with them, too. I
want to express my apologies for some recent gaps to those of you who follow the
weekly updates. Today, we’re sending you the recap for the February 12 segment of our
series, The Standards of Christian Excellence. We’ll be sending out the recap for
February 19 in just a few days. Many thanks for your patience!
Sometimes, we just have the irrepressible urge to do or say something. I sense this
state of being whenever I see little two year old Lucy Dawson jumping up and down out
of sheer excitement. As I watch her curls rotate and see her grinning face circle time and
again into view, it always reminds me a bit of Snoopy’s “supper time” dance in the
Peanuts comic strip. Her whole person declares that she’s brimming with something on
the inside, and she’s just GOT to let it out, some way.
I can relate. I get the same urge whenever I see a beautiful sunset, hear someone
share a deep insight, or see an exceptionally funny bit in a movie. It’s the same thing that
happens when you see a shooting star or lightning. You just gotta say, “Oooh!,” (or its
equivalent) and you just have to tell someone that you saw it. Something demands that
you point emphatically to the empty section of sky where the thing traced its path, even
though there is not a hint of it left for the other person to see.
Rationally, this exercise may seem futile, but, intuitively, we all sense that it’s
not. There’s a very real need for our experiences to get to the outside of us, somehow.
You can’t just leave a moment sitting there, closed up within your experience. You have
to exteriorize it.
The need to exteriorize is the urge that drives us to make art, to sing, to journal, to
scream, or to dance, just to name a few from a host of human behaviors. It is the drive to
express. And it comes upon us whenever we have any intense personal experience.
This is a necessary and natural human impulse. People need to share what they
live. Having someone else acknowledge our experience satisfies the need that each of us
has to be substantial. It offsets the common dread that scratches at the back of people’s
minds, the one that whispers, “You are a phantom in the world, and everyone else is
real.” When we express our experiences and someone else recognizes them, it sends us
the signal that we exist. We like that. It makes us feel okay, just a little bit more solid,
even if it’s only for a moment.
It’s quite easy to notice this impulse in infants. They light up like candles when
they get even a bit of eye contact or a facial reaction that signals to them that they exist.
The same dynamic can be seen pushing toddlers to yell, “Watch me! Watch me! ---
Watch ME!!” My guess is that there’s a good chance that the same urge impels teens to
crave popularity. Somehow, the infant’s urge lingers; it tells us even as we grow up and
enter society that more eye contact equates to more personal substance. Truth be told, I
think we never really grow out of it.
The recent explosion of social media seems to support this point. If it indicates
anything, the abundance of social media shouts to us that we all still have an infant’s
desperate urge to have someone acknowledge that each of us is sitting here, inside
ourselves, experiencing things. We long for others to confirm our existences by sharing
somehow that they see us having them.
In earlier times, the capacity to share with others was limited. Think of it for a
moment; up until the nineteenth century, no one had ever listed to music alone. There
always had to be another person present, even if it was the musician who was playing. If
someone heard a marvelous performance of a piece of music, there was no way for
someone who was not there in person to hear the same thing. Moments evaporated as
soon as they were finished, since there was no ability to record sensory events, and
physical distance separated people from sensing the same things. It was a “had to be
The advent of advanced technology has changed all of this, because it has
removed the natural constraints of time and space. Our expressions are now able to
endure beyond the moment, and it’s possible for people far away from us to see and to
acknowledge them. People in our day can record just about any event in some fashion or
another, with the push of a button, on a myriad of handheld devices, which are always
close within reach. What’s more, people can send those recordings all over the world in a
moment’s time or post them for an indefinite period via dozens of modes of social media.
But there’s a significant drawback that attends this capacity. When there are
billions of people in the world with access to recording technology, and each has the
impulse to record and to share individual experience, the by-product that can result is a
super-abundance of expression. In other words, we now have the ability to fill the world
beyond its capacities with social “chatter.”
In order to get a grasp on the concept, think of what the world would look like if
we physically printed and handed out all of the things that we express electronically.
What if each of us printed pictures of our dinners, our cute pets, our bad hair days, our
sunsets, etc., and then handed them out on street corners? What if, as we walked down
the street, each person we passed handed us a traditional 3”x 5”card with a joke on it, or a
photo, or the words to a song, or a passing thought on how their days were going? What
if each person carried a set of posters and plastered ads for their favorite bands and sports
clubs, or collages of their last dates or birthdays on the walls of one another’s homes and
The amount of litter would be overwhelming. It would clog our eyes and ears. It
would fill every spare corner of our environments. It would hinder every part of our daily
lives. We would drown in the clutter.
Our communication worlds aren’t physical; they exist in social space. And they
can languish under a burden of social graffiti and litter. This is precisely what has
happened in recent times. Until recently, we had letters, visits and telephone calls to
manage in social, and people had to choose what they communicated, since
communication resources were limited. This naturally selected what got sent into our
social environments. Today, we have phone calls, voicemails, emails, texts, faxes, posts,
Skype calls, tweets, blogs, chat rooms, instant messages, Facebook notifications,
forwards, photos, links,… the list is endless. And they are all pouring themselves into our
social spaces, demanding to be acknowledged. Our social environments are choked with
chatter and covered from top to bottom with social graffiti.
Some of the cause for this state of affairs may be attributable to our society’s
unexamined exaltation of the value of “communication.” Many of us have been taught
that communication is a good thing, in and of itself. We have been told that
communication solves relational problems, that communication forms friendships, and
that communication gets things accomplished.
However, the notion that communication is the answer to just about every human
problem fails to recognize the fundamental nature of communication. It stops short of
recognizing that communication is an interpersonal tool, not an interpersonal end. The
idea doesn’t take into account the fact that communication is a social medium, a means of
delivery, and that communication requires valuable content in order to be valuable. It
ignores the reality that there can be bad communication or good communication, and,
quite frankly, waste, junk or spam communication, as well.
By way of analogy, imagine that you observe a friend busily stuffing shredded
newspaper into envelopes and mailing them to others. You ask your friend what she’s
doing. She replies, “Can’t you see? I’m mailing!” You note that she is only mailing
newspaper. She rolls her eyes at you, a little irritated at your failure to see the value in her
actions. “Don’t you understand? Mailing is beneficial. Mailing keeps people in touch.
Mailing gets things done. Mailing builds relationships. We all need to keep mailing!”
You politely highlight to her that she isn’t mailing anything of substance. Now she’s
more than a little irritated. “Obviously, you don’t get the point. All mailing is good, no
matter what you are mailing. The important thing is to keep mailing. If you do,
everything will work itself out.”
Mailing is a means. It’s a mode of communication. While content depends on
communication, content and communication cannot be equated. Communication itself
doesn’t determine value. The meaning of a communication determines its value. If we get
this confused and assume that communication itself is valuable, we run the risk of
communicating without paying heed to our meaning. The result can be an overabundance
of low-value communication as we fill our neighbor’s social mailboxes with “spam” and
Jesus made a similar point about prayer in his Sermon on the Mount. He criticized
pagans for confusing the volume of their communication with the meaning of their
And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the
Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their
Do not be like them… (Matthew 6:7-8 RSV)
The book of Proverbs phrases the issue even more pointedly, especially when one
considers the observation in light of our society’s social media chatter:
A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in
expressing his opinion. (Proverbs 18:2 RSV)
The apostle Peter (God bless him!) provides for us a case study in empty
communication when he suggests during Christ’s Transfiguration that the disciples could
build three tabernacles, one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. The Gospel of
Mark comments that Peter spoke, “For he did not know what to say, for they were
exceedingly afraid” (Mark 9:6 RSV). In other words, Peter started talking precisely
because he didn’t have anything to say(!). He communicated because he had a deep
experience, but his communication was empty of meaning. He made “small-talk” simply
as a way to relieve his own internal anxiety, and the small-talk was counterproductive for
the moment. The Father’s voice responds firmly and plainly, "This is my beloved Son;
listen to him." (Mark 9:6 RSV). The emphasis for Peter was probably on the word,
The last segment in our series, The Standards of Christian Excellence, dealt with
the value of fellowship, which is a deeper manner of being with each other than mere
social presence. In a similar vein, although there is a genuine value in personal expression
and communication, there is a higher standard for Christian expression and
Certainly, we all need to express. We need to share with others our own
experiences. But our experiences do not all have the same value. Some of our experiences
are more substantial than others. These experiences should be given higher priority in our
communication. Likewise, some of our experiences are edifying and good, while others
are unedifying or trivial. The edifying ones should be given priority.
In Christian communication, the meanings and ends make all of the difference.
Christian communication is about more than simply making our opinions known. It is
about pointing toward the highest meaning in our lives. This meaning determines the
value of our expressions and communications.
The first chapter of John records a number of very meaningful communications
between people. All of the communications are about what someone has experienced, but
all are also invitations to engage that same experience. John the Baptist “testifies” (John
1:34) that he has seen the promised one on whom the Spirit rests, and he points his
disciples to Jesus with the declaration, “Look! (it’s) the Lamb of God, who takes away
the sins of the world!” (1:29). When those disciples ask only for information about where
Jesus is staying, Jesus invites them along with the words, “Come, and see!” (1:39). One
of them, Andrew, finds his brother Peter and points him in the same direction, with the
same results. Jesus calls Philip to follow him, and Philip shares his find with Nathaniel,
calling him in the same way, “Come, and see!” (1:46).
Those who met Jesus did more than express their experiences as records, hoping
desperately that others would affirm their existences by offering replies. They used their
experiences as grounding points for invitation to others to join them in experiencing
Christ. They pointed to someone greater than themselves, and they did it for a reason.
Their communications had transformational meaning wrapped up in them. They didn’t
just say, “Look what I found!” They said, “I have found something amazing and of value
to us both. Come with me, and see!”
The New Testament calls this “bearing witness,” or being a “witness.” The term is
martureo. It’s used of testifying in court. It means to give testimony (marturia) about
something or someone. Witness is more than chatter, litter, or graffiti. Witness points to
something meaningful. It is communication with purpose and personal investment behind
it. It’s the opposite of “spam.”
Jesus told his disciples, “you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come
upon you; and you shall be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8 RSV). He used the noun form of
martureo, which is martus. This is the kind of communication that we are called to as
believers and followers of Jesus. It is our standard for expression if we pursue Christian
The world loves chatter because it needs affirmation that it is more than a
phantom illusion. We do not need responses to our social graffiti to affirm that we exist.
We have substance in Christ, and we have the honor of inviting others to “Come, and
see” him. If we do this, the world can discover the One on whom the Spirit rests, and they
can find the voice of real love that will affirm their souls.
The English word that we get from martureo, martus and marturia is “martyr.” A
martyr is someone who has a testimony that is of greater value than his or her own life.
We have such a testimony.
May God grant us the grace and strength to bear this kind of witness to him
always, and may we never allow our testimony to Christ to be buried under the heap of
chatter or traded-in for social litter.
Blessings until Sunday!