June has been framed by two welcome and delightful communications from different friends. Last week, I arrived home from work to discover a letter waiting for me. Not an official communication, not a card, but a real letter with sheets of crisp white writing paper in an envelope addressed by hand. The moment I saw the handwriting, I knew it was from a school friend I'd last seen about twenty years ago. That writing took me straight back to chalky classrooms and English and Biology classes where we sat side by side inventing ways to make the day more interesting - possibly not the way the teachers would have described our activity! It has given me so much pleasure to receive this letter. Of course, it was just lovely to hear from my friend, but the fact she wrote a letter opened up so many avenues of layered, nuanced communication - seeing her hand writing was one, the way she wrote about intimate things only a few of us would remember was another and the feeling of being able to savour it and mull it all over before replying was another. She had written to re-establish contact and to give some very specific news; I was struck by how very differently it would have come across in a tweet (terse, less personal, possibly public and certainly something I might have missed) or on Facebook (demanding a fast response with half a mind to public comment and engagement.)
There is something, today, that is very special about receiving a letter. It slows the communication down, it re-introduces the senses of touch, smell and even hearing (the rustle of the paper, the drop of the letter through the letterbox) and it allows the memory to engage in particular ways. It matters that the person sending the letter has actually handled it. Perhaps, above all, there is a sense of spacious intimacy, an assumption that communication will take a little time, allowing for reflection, and that it will be only for the eyes of the one it is addressed to.
When my mother died three years ago, my aunt handed me a bundle of dog-eared air mail letters. I read them in a sitting, absolutely enthralled. They revealed a five year correspondence between my aunt and my mother; Mum was a young administrator working in Ghana and my aunt was an even younger student nurse in Manchester. Had they communicated by e mail and Facebook, who knows how much of the exchange would have survived. What survived might have been a wonderful expression of the externals - photos, comments by friends, brief descriptions of what they were doing and places visited, topical jokes. But I think the sense I had of being inside my mother's head, at the heart of some of her experiences, sharing the interiority of her life would have been lacking. Reading her letters 60 years after they were written, I felt I was meeting again the woman I recognised as my mother and being drawn into conversation with her once more.
Those of you who know me will realise that I'm not unhappy with digital communication, in fact I readily use Twitter, Facebook and blogging as means of keeping informed and in touch. This brings me to the second lovely surprise of the month. A friend I hadn't seen for ten years but with whom I had been in touch through our common enthusiasm for blogging tweeted from the USA to say she was coming to the UK to give some lectures. Without a lot of thought, I immediately tweeted, 'Let me know when and where.' Not only did she respond, but she suggested a meeting with three of her other friends for some conversation about theological issues and the future of the church, something she knew we would all be interested in. The upshot was that five of us met up for a wonderfully stimulating day in Durham, having arranged the whole thing in a matter of days on Twitter. Without Twitter, I'd not have known that she would be in the UK and we certainly would not have had time to organise a meeting that involved finding a mutually convenient date in 5 busy calendars.
So, two signifiant and joyful communications - a letter and a tweet resulting in enormous pleasure and new opportunities. I have found myself reflecting on the importance of identifying the optimum method of communication for the person, the moment and the message. It's partly about knowing how others like to communicate and what they will respond to. It's also about capturing attention and imagination and taking a moment to mull over what you want to achieve by your communication. Do you want to evoke or create a memory? To pass on vital information? To explore whether there might be sufficient grounds for deeper communication? Is speed of the essence? Or depth? Our communications are a bit like arrows that have to find their way to their target; some do, some come close by, others miss entirely. With the wide range of media now available to us, the skill is in discerning the target and how to strike. How best do we appeal to a particular person so that we capture their attention? What parts of their psyche are we appealing to - memory, intuition, imagination, emotion, motivation, reason or the part that requires accurate information? Communicating successfully is like finding small pools in the river of another person's mind into which we lob a judicious stone that creates ripples leading ashore to a landing place of recognition and engagement. There are many kinds of place and types and degrees of landing!
Jesus used just about all the media available to him - sand, touch, saliva, everyday action, reworked words from other sources, drama and stories. He spoke to crowds and to individuals in normal meeting places and in highly unusual ones; he sometimes allowed people to eavesdrop and he sometimes ensured intimate space. He spoke in highly original parables and aphorisms and also quoted or re-worked the words of others. He knew how to turn ordinary actions into drama and how to create memories that chimed in with the collective consciousness of a tradition. He brilliantly engineered moments (taking bread and wine while speaking of His own body and blood hours before his death) so powerful that we are still talking about them two thousand years later in every culture in ways that speak of His continued presence among us. Perhaps most potently of all, he did this in the presence of people who opposed him but also of others who would remember, interpret and record - not, I think an accident. He is described as 'the Word' in the fourth Gospel and he is understood, in the Christian tradition, as demonstrating the interiority of a God who communicates constantly and who holds in being a desire for reciprocal communication in all its many chameleon colours. This is the true heart of all relationship.
Tonight, I'm celebrating the joy of letters and tweets, memories and fresh challenges and friends who persist in communicating down the years, generously sharing the riches of their lives and the gift of their interests and empathy.