What to do and How to do it

Mail in a post-post Age

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Date: Fri, 12 Iyyar 51 AD 18:42:05 -0500
To: Church of the Thessalonians <church@thessalonica.net>
From: <paul_silvanus_timothy@athens.net>
Subject: You are our glory and joy

Grace to you and peace ...

Throughout history people have always sought to bridge the landmass or the bodies of water that separate friends and family. In 536 BC, faced with the problem of ruling an empire that extended from India to the Mediterranean, Cyrus the Great ordered all his governors and commanding officers to write to him regularly. He built the first “post-houses” with stables at regular distances apart—the distance that a horse could be ridden hard all day but not broken. At each post-house an official took care of tired “couriers”, received the correspondence and passed it on to the next rider. The Apostle Paul, in his great longing to see the Thessalonians “face to face”, entrusted his rolled-up parchment to a messenger who would have travelled over land or sea to reach his destination. With all roads leading to Rome, it is easy to see how Rome could have developed the most sophisticated postal system in the ancient world. Upon the collapse of the empire, this network was nearly eradicated, however fragments of it survived right up until the 9th century when it then fell into disuse. Then, the development of international commerce during the Renaissance fuelled the demand for couriers once more. Some postal services were privately owned and run, employing thousands and thousands of messengers. Eventually governments took over the mail system and turned it into the smooth operation that we have come to take for granted.

In 1971 a computer engineer named Ray Tomlinson invented electronic mail. This forever changed the way we relate through the written word. Previously, although sender and receiver were usually physically separated by space, the gap was bridged through the use of others who acted like a human relay chain to pass on the message. Even with the advent of bulk mail, someone was usually there to sort it, stamp it and send it on its way through the right channels. With e-mail, there are no human couriers, only electronic ones; computers talking to other computers halfway around the world through the use of cables deep under the sea. E-mail quickly gained popularity and is now one of the chief ways in which people correspond in corporate business. A paper by J.C.R. Licklider and Albert Vezza, published in 1978 by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, discusses its appeal:

One of the advantages of the message systems over letter mail was that ... one could write tersely and type imperfectly, even to an older person in a superior position and even to a person one did not know very well, and the recipient took no offense ... Among the advantages of the network message services over the telephone were the fact that one could proceed immediately to the point without having to engage in small talk first, that the message services produced a preservable record, and that the sender and receiver did not have to be available at the same time.

However, e-mail does have a widespread personal use too. Microsoft's free web-based e-mail provider, Hotmail, passed the 100 million milestone of total active users in January of 2001, showing that the popularity of e-mail has progressed beyond the business world. For some, it has completely replaced what has now affectionately become known as “snail mail”, as its speed and convenience work so much more effectively to bridge distances and bring people together. For others, unfortunately, it has become a way to pass on millions of bytes of junk mail (virus scams/petitions/you're my friend and I love you poems) to EVERYONE they know, thus creating large amounts of unnecessary traffic which then clog up our inboxes. Nevertheless, the advantages of this new technology outweigh the disadvantages, and if people insist on perverting the English language into abbreviated glyphs of "o.k. i c u @ 8! smile" then who are we to resist the tide of progress?

In a post-post postmodern age, I think it should be remembered that Paul's letters—though lengthy and (as the Apostle Peter says) “hard to understand” (1 Peter 3:16)—were a great encouragement to the groups of people he wrote to. Paul often spoke of his great love for all the churches he helped found throughout the ancient world—how he longed to see them—how he looked forward to coming again to visit—how he prayed constantly for them, wishing to see them spiritually mature and complete, lacking nothing, “rooted and built up in him and established in the faith” (Colossians 2:7), not swayed by anything. He urged them to “love one another with brotherly affection” (Romans 12:10) and to “pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” (Romans 14:19). Therefore, since we are still members of God's household like our spiritual predecessors, one of the wonderful things we can do for our Christian siblings is to encourage them (and have them encourage us), and e-mail is a fantastic medium to do just that. Here are few ideas to get you going:

  1. Greetings and sign-offs: A friend of mine always begins his e-mails with "Grace be with you" which I never cease to find encouraging. I used to sign off my messages with "love in Christ" and then, fearing that people would take the "love" part the wrong way (I really meant it as an imperative—go “love in Christ”—love as Christ did), I've modified it recently to “in Christ,” signifying to others that we are unified through Jesus our saviour.
  2. Send your friends Bible verses or tell them to go away and read particular passages that you have found encouraging. Paul tells us in Colossians 3:16 to “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom ...” Sometimes I think we underestimate the ministering power of the word of God and how an appropriate verse can bring so much comfort.
  3. Write about what you've been reading lately in the Bible and what you've been learning about God and his son, Jesus. Many Christians today seem almost embarrassed to share what's been happening in their spiritual walk with Jesus. Perhaps it's partly due to our postmodern culture which strictly adheres to the categorisation of religion as being a private affair. One guy at my church is never afraid to speak out about it and his words uplift me as he proclaims the greatness of the Lord.
  4. Talk about what's been going on at your church and how you've been encouraged by it. Again, sometimes it seems that church is a private affair and not to be discussed outside the pew.
  5. Share prayer points. A university Christian group I'm involved with does this on a Yahoo e-group and it helps to keep certain pressing needs at the forefront of one's mind when praying, in public and in Bible Study groups.
  6. Don't send impersonal forwards containing sugary Christian stories. I don't know about you but I really hate that. It implies that the person who sent it means well but doesn't care enough to send a more personal composition.

It is important to note that the gospel is spread primarily through the word - not through special effects, cute graphics or clever Flash animations. The word of the gospel is powerful because God is powerful. Paul declares, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes ...” (Romans 1:16). When writing to those who do not know Jesus, do not be ashamed of your meagre words and do not hesitate to copy bits of the Bible into your electronic epistle. Not being a very strong evangelist in the flesh, I nevertheless hope that I am of more use as a herald of the good news in 10pt Arial on screen, even if my chosen recipient never responds. And I know that there may be others like me who are not as eloquent IRL (In Real Life) as they are on the printed page. Evangelism on e-mail is useful in that it gives you time to organise your thoughts, iron out your arguments and find answers to those questions you can't answer. In addition, it creates a useful barrier between you and your correspondent which can lessen the unease and the fear which those out on a limb can often experience.

But never let e-mail get in the way of personal relationships. After having been addicted to e-mail for six years, and picking up and losing touch with friends all over the globe who I thought would be my friends forever, I know there's no substitute for being in the same room with them - being a real part of their life, through the good times and the bad, and not some electronic apparition who can easily drift away into the ether when life gets too busy. E-mail relationships can and do die, especially if they are not supported by a non-virtual means of interaction with which you can always fall back on. And as you get older, get married, get kids, it is easy to let those large spaces which once separated you from your overseas pals seep in between you once again.

Fortunately, although we cannot be everywhere and close to those whom we love from afar, God is everywhere around us and watches over those we cannot watch over. His Spirit lives in those of us who are his children, reminding us of our oneness in Christ and acting as a great reminder of God's promise: One day the distances won't matter. One day the spaces will be gone. One day, we will all be there with him in his shining city, separate no more.

Sources

A Brief Postal History of India, Philatelic History, http://www.sukhanieurophil.com/history.htm.
Accessed 28 December 2001.

Campbell, Todd, The First E-mail Message: Who sent it and what was said, Pretext magazine, 1998, http://www.pretext.com/mar98/features/story2.htm. Accessed 29 December 2001.

Chapter 1: A History of Information Highways and Byways: Ancient Networks, The Wired Professor: A Guide to Incorporating the World Wide Web in College Instruction, New York University Press, 1999, pp. 2-7. Text available at http://www.nyupress.nyu.edu/professor/webinteaching/history3.shtml. Accessed 28 December 2001.

Microsoft Corporation, Microsoft Hotmail Migration Technical Case Study, http://www.microsoft.com/TechNet/prodtechnol/windows2000serv/deploy/depopt/hotmailg.asp , 2001. Accessed 29 December 2001.

Postal Services History, http://www.lookd.com/postal/history.html. Accessed 28 December 2001.

Karen

In the final article, Ben explains the basics of getting a webpage online. Go!

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