Looking around the room, I saw a lot of smart phones, iPads, laptops, as well as salon haircuts, and expensive eye glasses with predominately black frames. I picked out grungy geeks, staid state employees, hip local media moguls, and a few old dudes like me among the crowd. One stunning young woman arrived, wearing tight black leggings and a short black jacket. Her stiletto boots with open toes showed off her bright red pedicure. She carried an equally beautiful baby on one hip.
I sat down at a table with two young web design entrepreneurs from Iowa. College students and high school buddies, they had made the nine hour drive to spend the day at of all places, the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library.
The event, sponsored by my local public library, is the brain child of librarian, David Lee King, who is definitely nothing like Miss Mabel Hrencher, who presided at the check out counter in the library of my childhood. PodCamp Topeka, billed as the “best unconference in the Midwest” is “Topeka’s annual low-cost unconference focused on social media, podcasting, audio and video production, and the web. Our goal? To learn about social media from social media experts, to network with fellow bloggers, podcasters & social media creators … and to have a blast!” Which, as far as I am concerned, we did. Though I skipped the Tweet-Up event at a local bar at the end of the day in order to walk my dog, I left thinking, “Wow! Topeka, Kansas just keeps getting better and better.”
I purchased a new TV remote a month ago after my dog, Elijah, ate most of my old one. The new remote still sits in its box, because I can’t figure out how to get the darn thing to work. So how did I come to be sitting among tech cool, social media movers and shakers, learning tricks for emerging web technology? What was I, a hermit, solitary type, who needs large, sustained doses of silence, and thinks about God a lot, doing here? What could the keynote speaker, social media guru, Patrick O’Keefe, owner of I Froggy Network , have to say of interest to me? The last Froggy I had heard of “went a’courtin’” years ago.
Why did I go? Simple. The event was all about communication, joining together, communion. This, you may recall, was a particular concern for Jesus. In the intimate moment in the gospel of John, where we listen in on Jesus’ prayer for his disciples, we overhear Jesus’ deep yearning that somehow, someway his followers might taste and enjoy the communion and oneness he shared with the Creator, whom he called Father. “Please let them be one, as we are one, not just kind of one, but completely, perfectly one. And Father, I don’t want just these here, my disciples, to be part of this joining together, I want also those, who believe in me through my followers’ words about me, to be one with us. (John 17: 20-22, paraphrase)
Part of the nature of the Holy One and those created in God’s image and likeness is the ability to communicate – to extend oneself out of oneself in order to interact in some meaningful way with another. An infant expresses his needs and learns trust, as his caregivers respond to his cries with comfort and nurture. Hopefully, the infant learns that when he expresses a need, someone beyond him will respond with kindness. The child experiences the deep satisfaction and relief of being heard, and understood. If for some reason its need is not met, if the infant is unable to successfully connect, to attach to another, and get his or her needs met, the baby may waste away and develop a host of difficulties in communing with others.
Communication forms the basis of human community and a reflection, for the believer, of the Trinitarian nature of God. Theologian Miraslov Volf in a recent article in Christian Century writes:
If the One God is utterly unique and beyond number, why do Christians speak of divine triunity? Christians believe the word [God’s communication] was made flesh in Jesus Christ. From this belief it follows that the one utterly unique God who is beyond all counting, is internally differentiated as the Speaker, the Word and the Breath.
We live in the midst of the praised and condemned transition from print and broadcast communication to digital communication. This is one more passage in the long journey that began at the campfire, where we gathered to hear the hunters tell us the story of how they stalked and killed our supper. We have now arrived at the blog, podcast, and webinar to tell our stories of conquest and to instruct others in monetizing, ROI (return of investment), and how to put supper on the table. According to M. Rex Miller, author of The Millennium Matrix, the movements from oral communication, to print media, broadcast, and digital media have each brought about sweeping changes in how we believe, how we know, how we live together, how we see beauty, and how we work and trade. Our institutional structures, our architecture, our religions, our art, our self understanding, even our brains have been conditioned by how we communicate.
What is an unconference? you may wonder. According to Wikipedia, “an unconference is a facilitated, participant-driven conference centered on a theme or purpose. The term ‘unconference’ has been applied, or self-applied, to a wide range of gatherings that try to avoid one or more aspects of a conventional conference, such as high fees and sponsored presentations.” An unconference moves away from a top down, gathering of authorities, experts, and hierarchical structures. Power in the form of information and know-how is no longer controlled by Miss Mabel Hrencher with her tight grip on your library card.
We, along with the Holy One yearn to know and be known, to receive another and to be received, to see and be seen. We find deep satisfaction in that moment of mutual apprehension: the yes! the nod, the I-get-you-baby. We seem to never tire of the joy of recognition, affirmation, acceptance, and to be heard and understood. “Hey, Mom, watch. See how I do this! Dad, look at me!”
The glance of another is a blessing beyond words, the bestowal of understanding is a gift of great price. During a break at the Podcamp, the hip young mom came toward me down the hall. I stopped and told her, “You are just beautiful.” She smiled and her baby looked at me and crowed.
At Podcamp most of us contained our look-at-me tendencies, but they were not far below the surface. The longing to enter into the sweet and deeply satisfying experience of communion runs like a subtext of desire through many human interactions. The man, who came for the fall check up of my furnace, the day after the midterm elections, visited with me a bit about politics and the state of the nation. At one point I said, “It sounds like you have thought deeply about these things.” The earnest, intelligent fellow perked up and talked for another half hour. Somebody cared.
It takes so little in the dance of communication – a comment, response, the slightest gesture of recognition, the click of the Like button. We possess great power to enlarge one another or to diminish and demean.
Prayer, as I understand it, is communication with the Holy One, an exchange in which we speak and listen ourselves into ever fuller being and carry with us our whole community into that fullness. We reach beyond ourselves and our essential isolation to enter another’s reality, and in that moment of communion, however momentary, virtual or real, is the opportunity for expansion, mutual exchange, and transformation.
A warning: death is involved in such communion. Life changing communication requires a dying to self and an opening out in trust to the other. I die to my personal exclusivity as an authority or expert, as I reach out to the collective, communal wisdom of my brothers and sisters. I find I am dying all the time, as I bump up against my perceptions, opinions, and personal critiques of those around me, only to discover just how dead wrong I am and how much more is going on in the realm of the Spirit, than I am aware of, or which I discount in my arrogance.
There is no room for a cozy “me and Jesus” theology in such communion. Theologian Miroslav Volf explains,
Because the Christian God is not a lonely God, but rather a communion of three persons, faith leads human beings into the divine communion. One cannot, however, have a self-enclosed communion with the Triune God- a “foursome,” as it were– for the Christian God is not a private deity. Communion with this God is at once also communion with those others who have entrusted themselves in faith to the same God. Hence one and the same act of faith places a person into a new relationship both with God and with all others who stand in communion with God. After our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity
The words, love, forgiveness, God, and Jesus were not mentioned at the unconference. Those young men at my table might have moved if they knew I was an ordained minister, not a popular profession in many circles. There was some bowing before the God of Technology. However, there was also an awareness of boundaries, rules, and internet etiquette: Act nice, or you will be deleted.
Some final words from M. Rex Miller:
The internet is fundamentally about connecting with people of common interest, facilitating person-to-person conversations, collaboration, assistance, and collective learning. The internet inverts the power curve away from centralized control and content to distributed power and member-generated content. The internet is about the exponential value of networks, the power of conversation, and liberation from past obstacles of time, location, gender, age, ethnicity, disability, and tradition.(The Millennium Matrix, p 205)