Monday, January 24, 2011

Fiery Communication

Every once in a while, I get an e-mail that I don’t really want to open. In those cases, it’s not a virus or offensive content that I’m worried about. Instead, I hesitate because I don’t want to read what that person has written me. When that happens, it’s usually because I’ve said something or done something that I regret. Perhaps, in a moment of carelessness, I’ve fired off an e-mail that quipped a little too frankly my displeasure at someone or something. Inevitably, the unavoidability of my mistake comes back to haunt me in the form of a reply e-mail. When the inbox shows me whom that message is from, I’m afraid to open it because I can imagine just how bad the damage might be.

Eventually, after swallowing hard and gritting my teeth, I click on the message. (Trust me: it won’t go away by itself.) Usually, however, I discover that I didn’t really have anything to worry about after all. People are typically more gracious than I give them credit for. I have usually blown out of proportion any brokenness that I might have been feeling in our relationship. In fact, almost always I’m relieved to have opened the message, read it, and let go of my anxiety.

In this morning’s New Testament lesson (Galatians 1:1-17), Paul begins his letter to the churches in Galatia with the kind of language that might have made them wish they hadn’t opened the message: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel…” Usually, letters like this start with some words of thanksgiving, but, in the place where an author would normally praise his addressee, Paul hits the Galatians over the head with their own failures. With particularly strong language, Paul wastes no time in calling out the Galatians for their mistakes, writing, “As we have said before, so now I say again: If any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed.” At that point, I might have put down his letter for a little while—unable to handle that much criticism all at once.

When I read passages from the bible, I easily forget the passions with which the original authors penned their works. Paul wrote so sternly because he loved the Galatians. He had invested a great deal of emotional, spiritual, and physical energy in building up their community. He had helped them realize God’s love for them in a new, grace-filled way. When he learned how his beloved community had forgotten all that he had taught them and returned to their infighting, he was devastated. And his pain and disappointment come through in his letter.

Usually, when I send or receive an e-mail that is laced with heated emotion, it’s because I love someone or because they love me. People who get by dander up with a stupid comment or a thoughtless letter are easy to dismiss or ignore completely if they aren’t people I care for deeply. When someone dear to me says or does something to hurt me, I’m likely to fire off a defensive reply. It’s not the right thing to do, but it does reflect a relationship that’s important to me. Perhaps, when my inbox “dings” with another e-mail that I’m not eager to open, I’ll remember that there’s more love to it than I might think.

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