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April 2012

Hello Cleveland. I'm Back.

I think the last time I was in Cleveland was about. . . umm. . . seven years ago.  I always say seven when I know it wasn't last year and yet it wasn't so long ago as to be ancient.  I really don't know how long ago it was.  Now that I think about it, it had to be at least 12 years ago, and that's verging on ancient, but they say memory is the second thing to go, if I remember correctly.  I forgot what the first thing is.

I'm in a smelly Comfort Inn room, courtesy of United Airline, a non-smoking room that reeks of cigarette, in route yet interrupted to Grand Rapids, for a Festival of Faith and Writing.  A party of books, if you can say party about bibliophiles.  But that macaronic collection of people and books is tomorrow.  I mean today.  I mean I just had dinner with some new friends at 1o:30, which is like the middle of the night for me, and now it is tomorrow, at least yesterday's tomorrow (or is it today?).  I haven't had anything to drink, if you're wondering.

But enough of that.  Cleveland holds fond memories for me, at least with time they seem fond.  Whenever it was that I was last here, it was as the record mogul fool that I was was then, the godfather of Silent Planet Records, at the annual convention of the Folk Alliance, with several artists in tow (and on the dole).  I learned a few things that trip, like full size vans do not fit in parking garages.  I rented one to tote my starving artists about, drove into a parking garage, and discovered with horror, once in, that it didn't fit.  I mean vertically.  I scraped the top of the van a few times and became terribly concerned that I'd never make it out.  Stuck. I felt claustrophobic, scrapping my way through the first floor of the garage until it disgorged me into the street, thankful at that moment for the collision damage waiver I never buy but did buy that time.  Sorry, I tore up your van.  Thanks.  Goodbye.  Absolutely freeing.

You can do legal U-turns in the middle of a busy street in Cleveland.  It's fun.  Everyone's doing it.  Which makes it not so fun after all.  Particularly in a full size van.  And did you know that have a high center of gravity and that you should slow down to do a U-turn? I  know that. . . now.

One night I had the bright idea to take the artists to dinner. . . only my little group swelled to what seemed like 30,maybe 40.  A few homeless people (they looked similar to my artists), may have been with us.  We hired a few taxis and asked the driver of the lead car to take us to his favorite restaurant.  He did, after a tour of seedy neighborhoods, and it was good, and it cost me.  It really cost me.  I don't even know who all those people were.  And they drank.  I don't have a problem with alcohol, really, but drunk arists. . . well, there were moments of incredible inspiration, verse and song.  And tears.  Mine. Someone had to pay.

Self-avowed anarchists walk the halls of Folk Alliance.  I didn't really believe such folk existed, but they do.  They have a problem with authority.  They strum guitars and complain about their mothers and fathers and teachers and governments.  And people of faith?  I didn't even meet a Muslim, much less a Christian.  These folk were irreligious.  If I had found a crystal-gazing New Ager, I would have thought him/her a kindred spirit, a co-belligerent.  But not to be.

I'm thankful for at least one thing.  I met the fantastic Jane Kelly Williams in Cleveland.  I sent her an airline ticket.  She came.  She played and sang, and the room was absolutely still, reverent like high church.  It made it all worthwhile, being a record mogul that is.

I wasn't even a proper record mogul.  I always imagined a stretch limo pulling up to the convention center and me with shades and black skinny jeans and t-shirt advancing on the Folk Alliance with several admirers in tow, a couple of big strapping guys on either side to deal with hangers-on.

I have to tell you: the record business wasn't what I thought it was.  It was more like this: hang out with some wacky but inspiring people, spend money, listen to music, spend some more money, and when you think it's over, spend even more money.  It was a glorious waste of time.

I loved it all.

[The facts above bear some resemblance to the truth.  Sorry, but I can't remember it all.]

The Signature of Place and Time

What if the Postal Service's resurrection was found in a renewed conversation of places --- letters between Christians exploring what it means to be Christ's church in their own places? What if we could discipline our language and create a common formational practice among our young people by encouraging personal, meaningful writing from one place to another?"

("Slow Mail: The Discipline and Joy of Handwritten Letters," by Ragan Sutterfield, in Englewood Review of Books, Vol. 2, No. 1)

 In the concluding paragraph of his first letter to the church at Corinth, the Apostle Paul says "I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand" (1 Cor. 16:21).  He does it again when writing the church at Colossae (Col. 4:18) and Thessalonica (2 Thess. 3:17a) and, in respect to the latter, adds that "[t]his is the sign of genuineness in every letter of mine; it is the way I write" (2 Thess. 3:17b).  No other letter of an apostle bears these words, though John's second two letters each add "[t]hough I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink.  Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete" (2 Jn. 12; 3 Jn. 13-14).  Paul's writing the conclusion of his letters or, at least, signing them, is a mark of authenticity.  His unique signature bears witness to the genuineness of his words, present, like an etching, even when he cannot be.  What John adds is his preference for physical presence over pen and ink, a letter being no match for face to face conversation.  John recognizd that physical presence was superior to a letter, Paul that a letter written in his own hand superior to that written by what Matthew Henry called an amanuensis (an assistant who takes dictation).  And both are superior to modern-day digital media.

What have we lost by this cultural drift?  And who will remember what is lost when the generation that remembers a non-digital and internet age is gone?  A digital book will never have the substantiality of a hardcover book, an MP3 file the tactility of a recording, or an email the weight of a letter.  And none of them will have the presence of a person --- whether storyteller, musician, or friend.  We may settle for less than presence and must do so much of the time, but to consider such accommodation progress is sad, a product of a disincarnate culture.  In one of his many prescient comments, the late Marshal McLuhan said that "[d]iscarnate man is not compatible with an incarnate Church."  It may have been his way of saying that the Body of Christ requires presence, requires embodiment, and cannot live in a people who seem to prefer disembodied connections.  Tweets, status posts, and text messages are a poor substitute for face to face life together.

One path back for me has been letters. . . not many thus far, and perhaps not as substantial as what Ragan Sutterfield suggests, but it's a start. Here I am, on vacation, and in the drawer of our hotel room is stationary embossed with the hotel name, with envelope, and I wonder what was the last time someone wrote a letter on a sheet of it, and if I could, if I would take the time to do so.  Who will I write?

When I read Sutterfield's article on letter-writing, the cynic in me said "get real."  How in the world do we discipline ourselves much less young people who may never have written a letter nor communicated in much more than 140 characters or less than instantaneously to write a letter?  Why would they do that?  Why would they take the time?  There are reasons to do so, but the case for it is so subtle that it would not be compelling.  It is a pleasure to be discovered, not commanded.

Maybe, just maybe, the best way is to take the time to write them a letter, to invite a conversation.  They may just take you up on it.