Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Dear Pastor-Blogger (Epistolary Wednesday)

On Wednesdays, I'm writing letters.
Dear Pastor-Blogger,
(Or: Dear Person Who Writes and Cares About People),

It’s a risky vocation you possess, thinking you can straddle the fence, one foot in social media-land, engaging in global conversations with people you know and barely know, with another foot in the local church, teaching classes weekly,  preaching sermons, getting into the grit of daily life with people in your congregation. Sometimes you wonder if you’ve confused your call, if these two things you engage in are mutually exclusive. You feel like, in theory, they ought to be compatible. Isn’t it right that a church leader demonstrate what it means to respectfully and lovingly engage in challenging discourse with people who disagree or see the world differently? Yes, absolutely, you conclude. But then Real Life reminds you that not everyone is going to follow that same model. And, of course, you are human. Of course, any unresolved tensions in your own heart can creep out in your satire in ways that are Unhelpful. You never forget that, but you look for it like a guard dog on patrol and sometimes, even then, you'll miss it. But say you do catch it all: there’s no guarantee that you’ll express yourself so that you are interpreted as you intend. Words mean different things to different people. People will get offended. And it will crush you when this happens, when you’re misunderstood as being what you’re not, or when you're disliked for what you are. What will you do?

Sure, you could just give up blogging about anything significant, about anything that matters, like you've done before. Safe territory is kid stuff, kitchen stuff, Chicken-Soup-for-the-Soul stuff. But that’s not who you are. Kitchens and kids and happy thoughts are not the limit of all your observations and questions about the world that you want to offer the world.

So how do we proceed with diplomacy, Dear One? How do you balance this plate of literary irony, social critique, and agape when those food groups can get out-of-proportion so quickly? And you know how your kids are with disproportioned food groups: constipated or behaviorally jacked up, depending on the kind of excess.  

Consider the following for balance.

1. Learn to care more about people than you care about having the freedom to be careless with your words. You are free, Dear. You are absolutely free. But use your freedom wisely. Use it to help and not to hurt, unless the hurt is Good Hurt, the kind that discomfits us into righting wrongs, seeking truth, making space for those who haven’t gotten any, or speaks for those who can’t/don’t/are afraid to.

2. Work out your offenses/bitterness/anger/hurt surrounding an issue before you ever publish a post about such things. Bitterness gets in the way of constructive activism; it keeps us locked into analysis of the wound, stealing precious attention from finding a solution to the injustice. Plus, bitterness just doesn’t look very pretty on anyone, and you’ll lose friends quickly (unless they’re bitter along with you about the same stuff).

3. Problems with Real, Live People in Real, Live Situations close to your life should be sorted out with those people in those situations and not through a public forum like a blog.  This is Step 2 for Keeping Friends and Influencing People.

4. You should be willing and comfortable to perform anything you write for your blog as a TED talk or a poetry reading—but not as a sermon—in a public venue with your congregation in the audience. No, you are not parsing out the meaning of Job or Genesis, but you should be the same person with the same values, expressed appropriately in different contexts.

5. Sometimes, very personal things happen that, once sorted out, also have merit as kindling for larger-scale conversations. Sometimes this is worth writing about, creating a public space for dialogue. Even when it is painful. Even when it makes the right kind of waves (see #1). Choose these conversations wisely.

6. If you’re unsure about the tone, the heart of a piece, if you’re unsure about whether it does any earthly or heavenly good, ask someone you respect to read it. Someone whose critique would mean something. Someone who would challenge your unkindness and sarcasm but know the difference between that and the irony-that-speaks-louder than any straightforward line. When they give their blessing, rest easy.

7. Think about expressing gratitude if/when you’ve made someone's life (like your boss's or your spouse's) more complicated. Appreciate that s/he’s had to answer emails and phone calls about you over the years. Thank her/him for sticking with you. For believing in you. For believing in the work God is doing in you and through you, imperfect as you are.

8. Also, it would be helpful to convey to your readers, in more ways than one, that the kind of blogging and writing you do is an art form, not a sermon, a Bible study, or a Sunday school class. Artists use motifs, craft, structure, irony, and other devices to offer their message, and sometimes that message takes ferreting out. And sometimes it doesn’t--it’s simple and clean and non-wave-forming. But it’s art, and art’s your way of honing in on What Matters.

9. Sometimes, you'll find out that despite following steps 1-8, you'll confuse people. Maybe, come to find out, your perspective was too narrow. If that happens, widen your lens. Apologize if necessary. Be humble. You'll live to tell about it, and so will everyone else.

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