People who read novels often talk about skipping the descriptive parts so it won`t take so long to get to the plot. Some of my students used to apply the term “run-on sentence” to any statement that was longer than subject-verb-object. Now that we all engage in texting, we can not only shorten sentences, we can eliminate them altogether. What’s more, (i.e., less), we can shorten words to mere letters. Now I understand that brevity is the soul of wit, but I have a hard time not thinking of texting as truncated, rather than merely brief and efficient. None of this bothers my grandchildren and their peers. “We know what we mean” they tell me. I understand them to this extent: they seem to know the context in which they are communicating, whereas I do not.
I don’t lament the constant and inevitable shifting in language, be it style or usage, or the technology that has made contemporary communication so all-pervasive. Without the invention over the centuries of paper, the stylus, the quill, the printing press, the computer, our connection with others past and present would be very much limited. To be sure, a little less connectedness might well be a good thing, giving us more time to be more thoughtful about what we write, as we e-mail, blog or tweet.
So here’s the thing we do need to lament: that, given all our contemporary methods of communication, it is such a challenge to speak with thoughtfulness, or with spiritual honesty and precision. I have read a lot of stuff by bloggers whose “reasons are as two grains of wheat in two bushels of chaff. You shall search all day ere you find them, and when you have found them, they are not worth the search” (The Merchant of Venice, Act 1, Scene 1). I want to tell them: Meaning is what counts, and understanding. Purpose is important too. Before we open our mouths or go to our keyboards, both within our Christian community and outside of it, we need to ask ourselves, “What do I mean by saying this, and should I be saying it to this particular person at this time?”
Swathed in love
I am a pastoral elder in my church, and after almost every visit I make I realize more acutely that I need to listen more than I speak, and that life in the Spirit cannot be shared in clichés, sound bytes or buzz words like “family values” or “a personal relationship with Jesus.” I and the person I am visiting might as well look at a picture of the Eiffel Tower together and assume we know what Paris is like. Short-cut phrases and generalities, I realize, are the quickest way to non-communication. I have to listen for the particular in a person`s grief or anger or joy, and then respond in the particular.
The two fine lead articles in the April 13 issue of Christian Courier both allude to another norm that should govern our conversations. They state that, whatever the issues, we need to talk with one another in a “grace-filled way” (Bootsma) and “as fervent story tellers with strong ‘soft skills’ and superb self-awareness” (Van Niejenhuis). Both articles suggest that, not only must we be self-aware (Why am I saying this?) but also aware of the needs of the person we’re speaking to (Should I be saying this now?).
In Proverbs, that book full of brief life lessons in nutshells, we read little gems like these: “When words are many, sin is not absent. . . . The lips of the righteous nourish many. . . . The lips of the righteous know what is fitting . . .”(Prov. 10). Bloggers, texters, tweeters and column writers: know that our words have to be swathed in the love that Christ has for us, lest we become “clanging cymbals.” If we are to be “fervent story tellers,” we have to be fervent listeners to other people’s stories as well. And when we do that, real communication happens: church jargon and buzz words fall away; fatuous chatter disappears. Instead, hearts and minds meet; issues become solvable; grief is mitigated; joy is shared.
Visionary truth telling ought to be the ideal we strive toward. I am not for a minute suggesting that we all have to be super-literate in order to communicate well. I’m sure God will never ask us whether we read novels with lots of description, whether we speak and write in well-crafted sentences, or whether we blog, tweet or text. He might just be more interested in whether our words truly reflect what is in our hearts (Matt. 12:36, 37).
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