by Rick Cruse
As with all blessings, there are banes in cyberspace.
Last year the entire world learned the ins and outs of top-secret U.S. military planning during the successful rescue of a pilot downed over Bosnia. On a more mundane and closer front, I have recently, and accidentally, been made privy to a very sensitive letter written about someone else’s co-worker and a birthday message to a friend’s mother. On another occasion I and several hundred others were provided with someone’s credit card information and PIN code.
What brought all these secrets to my attention? The new world of electronic communications. What was once an esoteric mixture of hardware, software, and unintelligible phraseology is fast becoming an irreplaceable element of modern missionary living.
The advent of electronic communications combined with the technical know-how and servant attitude of organizations like Mission Aviation Fellowship means that fewer Christian workers in remote settings are dependent on vagaries of inefficient postal systems. Communication that once required weeks now happens in hours, or even minutes. The needed answer that once kept you camped at your post office box for days now arrives almost immediately in the privacy of your own office.
But, as with all blessings, there are banes in cyberspace.
1. International foolishness at the touch of a button. Proverbs 29:20 says, “Do you see a man who speaks in haste? There is more hope for a fool than for him.”
Communication via e-mail provides a dangerous breeding ground for haste, foolishness, and misunderstanding.
In the not-too-distant past, communication via hand-written letters often provided the needed time and space to get perspective on touchy issues. Gnawing on the end of your pencil as you pondered your next words increased the likelihood that the product would be circumspect and sensitive. There was time to think about what you had read and how you would answer. And, in the unlikely event that an ill-advised letter was sent, there was still time to intercept it at some point. At the very least, you could make a phone call and say, “Please throw away that letter without reading it.” These buffers no longer exist.
Today, as we receive our electronic mail, we make frequent use of a very scary option: our software’s “Reply” icon. Gone are the hours or days to reflect.
Our correspondents do not receive words that are weighed, erased, and reworked. Often, what they get is right off the tops of our heads (places where very little of redeeming value lives). Instead of balanced and thoughtful replies, we often send off a barrage of insensitive, inaccurate, and foolish comments. Last summer, after I had sent an e-mail to my son, I received the following reply, “I didn’t realize a person could get chewed out over e-mail, but I was wrong!”
And, lastly, there is no room for error, no ability to retrieve our words. Once we press that “Send” button, our message is basically gone. A modern paraphrase of Proverbs 29:20 might read, “E-mail in haste, repent in leisure.”
2. Time’s a wasting. “Like cold water to a weary soul is good news from a distant land” (Prov. 25:25). Our desperate need for the refreshing and sustaining power of communications from home was once met by a daily, or biweekly, visit to the post office. Letters received—even from headquarters—were then devoured and then saved for subsequent review. Letters of a lesser importance could be stacked on a corner of the desk to await a more opportune moment.
Regular visits to the post office have now been replaced by hourly phone calls to our e-mail hub. The efficiency and service provided in Kenya by MAF make possible almost-hourly phone calls from early morning until late at night, just to see if someone, somewhere, in the world has written me, answered me, or wants something from me. It scares me to think of the amount of time I have spent in the last 11 months dialing and redialing the e-mail hub, listening for that welcome modem-to-modem crackle signaling success in my quest, and then impatiently watching the transfer of files. Then, intothe “In box” I dive.
Whereas less important letters could be set aside to be read during a slow time, all e-mail messages tend to be appear equal. Unless we do not mind living with a cluttered, growing, and overflowing “In box,” we feel pressed to do something with everything we receive—and quickly.
When I first signed up for e-mail, few people had my address. Those who did were family, friends, or colleagues whose communications I needed or desired.
Today we are experiencing the emergence of junk e-mail: sports scores, jokes, advertisements, and a variety of items that beg to be read before being deleted. (“You don’t want to delete anything too soon! You don’t know what you might be missing.”)
If we are not careful, much of our day can be spent creating, sending, receiving, reading, and responding to e-mail. The “cool waters” of timely communication can become a bucket of cold water on our already packed schedules.
3. Superficial responses to the cry of the heart. “The purposes of a man’s heart are deep waters, but the man of understanding draws them out” (Prov. 20:5). Quite often, our writing reflects who we are. We seek to explain, inform, elucidate, or encourage. Or, we are requesting answers, information, or permission.
In those “good old days” of letter writing, even the shortest request or report would, more often than not, include a word of greeting, a phrase of encouragement, a hope that the recipient and his or her family were in good health, or a blessing. If for no other reason than how silly a two-sentence letter on a sheet of stationery appears, we tended to fill up the page. Never have I received a one-, two-, or three-word letter from a friend or co-worker. They wouldn’t be worth the cost of the stamp.
Apparently, the first cousin to speed is brevity. With e-mail it is not terribly unusual, after sending a message of any length, to get a response like: “No problem,” “Will do,” or “Sounds good.” With the number of memos I send, when I get the answer, “Sounds good,” I have to sort back through my message log to just figure out what sounds good. Many of my messages deal with more than one issue, but the quick response usually just answers one. And knowing that “Delete” follows fast on the heals of “Reply,” I know that the other issues will require yet another e-mail. If we are not careful, we will overlook the “deep things” in one another’s lives and drift into the shallow waters of trite and functional communication.
Don’t get me wrong. I love e-mail. I am thrilled with the ability to get quick answers to critical questions. Much-needed information arrives in a fraction of the time. Prayer requests are current. Grandparents hear of the daily, instead of monthly, progress of the new grandchild. The college application process goes with fewer hitches. High phone bills to stay in touch during trips are a thing of the past. Friendships are maintained.
However, as with all new technology, we must learn to discern. What promises to serve us can, if we are not careful, become our master. We must learn new behaviors as we learn new capabilities. E-mail software comes with nearly everything we need to communicate, except insights into the moral, ethical, and personal issues that emerge. The following are a few simple suggestions for making the most of e-mail.
1. Don’t overuse the “Reply” option, because it encourages haste. Even if your in box gets jammed, take time with your responses. Pray over the keyboard as you might have once prayed over your pen and paper. Grace communicated in a well-written letter translates equally well via cyberspace—if we will take the time.
2. Be disciplined. Set up scheduled times to get your messages. Just because it has arrived doesn’t mean it has to be read right now, or at all. And just because the one who wrote you waited until the deadline, because e-mail is so fast, you are not obligated to respond immediately. Poor planning on anyone’s part still need not constitute a crisis for you.
3. Personalize your messages and responses.Greet those to whom you are writing. Pass along a word of blessing or encouragement. It normally costs little or nothing and can be a breath of fresh air in their lives. Don’t allow e-mail to strip away yet another layer of our humanity.
4. Don’t forget the power of the old-fashioned letter. Not everyone is on e-mail. And even those who are still might enjoy having something come to their house or office besides junk mail.
Time to finish this. I need to call my e-mail hub!
Copyright © 1996 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.