Relationship at a Distance (TDTCTW 11)

September 11 was a day when it seemed as if everyone in the world was either in New York or trying to reach someone there. On that day, checking your e-mail became a matter of life and death for many. By 8:45 AM on that day Ron Bruno was sitting in his Manhattan apartment, already dreading the day ahead, stressful and complex, as Manhattan days tend to be. By 8:55 AM the first of many questions about Bruno’s well being arrived in his email inbox. It was from cousin Bev in the New Jersey suburbs. “How far are you from there? Are you at work? Please tell me you are safe.” Bruno started an irritated response about the great divide between midtown, where he lived, and downtown, where the twin towers were. He then erased it and tried again, “I’m fine. Both the apartment and my office are far from the WTC, so no worries. How are you?”

Bruno’s regular band of far-flung correspondents, such as cousin Remo in southern Italy, made up the first wave of messages. On September 11 all he could write in response to dozens of inquiries was a simple “yes” and “hmmm.” By the next day Bruno began hearing from people at an even greater relational distance, and for once he was not irritated. Email was Bruno’s shield against events, protecting his family and friends from worry, and himself from total comprehension of the tragic events ten kilometers away.

After a break to collect some emergency cash, he returned home to another wave of emails, this time from less frequent correspondents: a girl he used to tease in eighth-grade algebra, high school friends he hadn’t seen since the last reunion, professional colleagues. Many of these live far away and weren’t sure if he was even in Manhattan after all these years. Oddly enough, Bruno found catharsis with these email acquaintances, more than with those closer to his life, in town or on the phone.

Email proved to be much more therapeutic than the phone. The typical phone conversation on September 11 was punctuated by long periods of silence and repeated musings along the line of “I can’t believe this is happening.” It was too soon to talk things through. Emails, on the other hand, gave opportunity for reflection on the complexity of Bruno’s sadness and uncertainty. His keystrokes were often hurried, but the words kept pouring out and they helped. After September 11, many of these correspondents would drop out of his email inbox for months or even years, but at the crucial moment they were with him, and that was all that mattered.

As our experience with email teaches us, writing is a marvelous way to develop and maintain relationships even though we may not be physically together. And social scientists have noticed an interesting feature of email. People somehow feel safer with email than they do with any other type of communication. They are willing to say things that they would never put in a formal letter or say to someone’s face. So email has become a major factor in relationships over the last ten years or so.

In the case of Ron Bruno, email was a soothing way to process that which could not be understood or even imagined. Where phone calls offered little solace, emails, even with people he hardly knew, provided an outlet for his feelings and a strong sense of connection to the wider universe, one he probably would not have gotten from those in his immediate circle around New York.

For me, email provides a strong analogy to the way prayer has functioned through the centuries. Prayer helps one to find a center in the midst of the normal chaos of contemporary life, and even more so in times of great tragedy, such as September 11. There comes a strong sense that we are not alone, that no matter what takes place, there is an ultimate purpose to it all, that out there is One who cares deeply about us and whose presence can be felt from time to time.

But how do you have a serious relationship with someone you cannot see, hear or touch? How do you have a relationship with someone who is not physically there? I have wrestled with this concept for many years and the events of September 11 didn’t make it any easier.

A couple of decades ago I observed a social phenomenon that helped me make some sense of these questions. The movie Titanic earned twice as much money from theater admissions as any other movie of all time. What was the reason for this “titanic” excitement? One of the main reasons was that millions of teen-age girls in North America became smitten with the handsome young male lead, Leonardo DiCaprio. Many went back to see the movie several times, some claimed to have seen it over forty times! What were they doing? They were developing a relationship with someone they couldn’t see, hear, or touch!

“Wait a minute!” you may be thinking. “Weren’t they seeing and hearing him in the movie?” Yes, in a sense they were. But watching a movie is not quite the same as meeting Leonardo in person. The movie was only a witness to the reality that is Leonardo. But how do you know Leonardo DiCaprio even exists if you’ve never met him, heard him, or touched him? Well, for starters, the movies he has made testify to his existence. Millions of people testify to his existence. You hear about him on radio or TV, you read about him in magazines and newspapers. No one doubts his existence, even though few have met him.

The existence of God is secure on a similar basis. Where millions will testify to the existence of Leonardo DiCaprio and the influence he may have had in their lives, billions over the centuries have testified to the existence of God, including the testimonies found in sacred texts. The craze over Leonardo DiCaprio testifies how you can have a real relationship with someone you cannot see, hear or touch. You can have a relationship with Leo if you spend time with the various witnesses about his person. You can read about him, talk to people who know him, and sample his own testimony about himself on TV, radio, or in a magazine. For many young women at one point, their relationship with Leonardo was the most significant thing that had ever happened to them, even though they had never met him in person.

So it is with God. If you seeking a real relationship with Him, you can start with the primary witness about Him, the Bible. It contains the record of His impact on people over an extended period. There you will meet Jesus, who is described as the clearest expression of God’s character in the whole history of the human race (John 14:6,9; Heb 1:1-3). There are also other ways to meet the invisible God. You can talk to people who know Him, and hear their testimonies about His impact in their lives. You can experiment with the kinds of actions that have helped others find God.

When you think of all the time and energy that many young women expended to get to know Leo, it is not surprising that in the aftermath of September 11, more and more people have been making the search for God a priority in their lives.

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