(This is a letter, not a literary device, and you may not find it interesting, but it does concern something real I need to talk to God about. We know that writing and reading sometimes bring catharsis; can they also bring discernment and dialogue?)
O Holy One,
I need your help. It’s about my website, prayer blog, ministry or whatever it is you see me work on every day, The Daily Office.
Today I added a new permanent page on the main site, an Introduction to the Prayer Book sent to me by a priest in Massachusetts. He’s getting ready to teach this on Sunday to his Inquirers’ Class, and he e-mailed it because he commends the Office sites and a few other spiritual helps, including Forward Day by Day. I hear fairly often from Episcopal newbies who find the Prayer Book confusing, and who might be helped by his short paper, so I asked and he gave me permission to reprint it. But that’s just one of the pages I want to add; the others concern the letters I get and the artwork I show. And then there’s my Grand Plan.
Every day for almost seven years now, I’ve found two images that illustrate the faith in some way, or the state of the world; photography, paintings, sculpture, photojournalism, icons. Tomorrow’s saint is Richard Allen, founder and first Bishop of the AME Church; I paired him with Sojourner Truth, whose “Ain’t I A Woman?” speech connects not only with Allen’s story but with my Lenten theme this year on violence and abuse toward women and girls.
To put up those pictures I had to take down the most gorgeous image of St. Joseph and your Son – which I didn’t want to remove. It belongs in an art gallery or museum, where visitors can sit and gaze on it as long as they want. I could make a virtual gallery, Lord; I’ve got 1500 images in my computer and I find more every day. I’d have to organize them by theme – Saints, Architecture and Jesus’s Ministry come to mind – but a web visitor who had the time could drop by anytime to look through these windows into heaven.
I could do the same with videos and podcasts, Lord; with the hymns and anthems I’ve bought. Suppose someone is awake late at night, too troubled to sleep; they could come and put their minds at ease.
I’m not wanting to do the Episcopal Church YouTube or the Cyber Hymnal; I just think there should be an archive, not a discard pile. Remember those suppressed civil rights photos from the Birmingham News, that they finally published 30 years later and I reprinted? Those are valuable, to history and souls; they also made my website grow when I posted them years ago for Lent.
Then there are my podcasts of Julian of Norwich’s Revelations in A Lesson of Love; the Order of Julian wanted to collect them as a treasury, since they’re Father JJ’s translation. But now the Order he founded is going through turmoil, monks and nuns coming and going, and they’re not able to accomplish much in the outside world. Maybe the sister who was going to spearhead this project has flown the coop; at any rate they’re having hard times. Do bless them, Lord, they need you. It’s a monastery with both men and women, which exactly fits the imagery and experiences you gave to Mother Julian 800 years ago.
About the letters: in the past 24 hours I’ve heard from a woman who’s just started dialysis and prays the Office while she’s making her exchanges; she stumbled across the site and now feels like she’s part of a much bigger community. Hallelujah! This morning a man wrote about how having the complete service in one place, and printing it out from our blog, has increased attendance at daily Morning Prayer at his church. Most of their parishioners are elderly, some are disabled, and juggling books doesn’t cut it for them anymore; but when they can see it all on the printed page, they can pray like they want to.
I don’t want a Letters Page so everyone can see the praise and thanks I get, but so that we can read each other’s faith stories. It increases intimacy and community, which are hallmarks of your Church – yet more difficult online without good tools.
And I come back to my Grand Plan, which I dreamed up with John in an amazing phone call a few months ago: social networking, a kind of FaithBook for the Episcopal Church and your friends. So much could be done there, Lord, while keeping worship front and center. It’s the obvious next step, the technology exists today, something better than Facebook, a specialized form of it without all the ads and assumptions (like we only want to talk in 144 characters).
John had said he can’t talk about his faith on Facebook, or anything real or important to him, because most of his friends use it as a kind of social club/pickup joint; the last thing they want to hear is how he really feels. I said, “That’s odd, I have spiritual conversations all the time on Facebook.” It depends on who our friends are, Lord.
But now John’s out of touch, has been for months, traveling the world or something with his broken heart; he’s great at the technology, Lord, he could give me what I want, and is even willing to do the work for free – but where is he? I hope he’s all right; please watch over him. He’s a genius; he started coming to the site when I was featuring Anglican chant, which comforted him. But I’m no music expert, Lord, I’m not trained in it, and lately on the site it’s hit or miss.
So here’s what I think I need to do, or want to do or could do, depending on your vocation for me: apply for a grant from the Lilly Endowment or Trinity Church, Wall Street, and hire a technical expert to turn my little site and blog and Facebook group into a comprehensive Episcopal Church megasite, with one-stop shopping for prayers, blogging, art, music, friendship networks, news, ministries, causes, photos of babies and kids at camp and altar guilds, old men in pointy hats, and that crazy lady in Dubuque who thought for sure she saw an image of the Virgin Mary on a piece of rye toast.
(Of course, if it worked for us it would work for every parish, diocese and denomination in the world.)
That’s what John and I came up with, Lord. I’ve got the liturgical training, he’s a techno wizard, and together we could have done it. But now he’s gone and it’s up to me, if you want it done. Or even just tried.
‘Cause I’ve kinda got a megasite already – 1.3 million visitors – but you know my current webhost is completely inadequate and will never offer what I need; they’re not in business for it. I have to move the site for it to grow, so I can merge it with the blog and work more efficiently.
I’ve got 850 members in my Daily Office group on Facebook, but that site’s bias is toward a mass medium, not a niche like I’m describing. If young adults want to turn it into a giant singles bar, what does Mark Zuckerberg care? The company’s business plan and technical choices sideline small groups like mine, no matter how faithfully I post. If a member hasn’t clicked Like on my posts in the last seven days, I stop appearing in their main News Feed; Facebook goes wherever the action is. Okay, fine.
You know, Lord, I’ve been concerned about my succession plan for years now. I wrote to the Bishop, asking if the diocese wanted to administer those millions of visitors once I’m dead; as currently constituted, it’s mostly a matter of finding seven Daughters of the King to take a day a week. Little work, little income but no financial drain. She was noncommittal. I approached the Forward Movement in Cincinnati, a successful organization since 1932, with a budget over $1 million and a dozen paid staff; the director called my site statistics “astounding,” especially compared to theirs, but otherwise told me not to hold my breath while they go through a strategic planning process. They do printed tracts, known in every parish in the U.S., but their web presence is much smaller; in other words, they’re the old technology with the budget to match.
There were John and Robert and Jim, techno guys willing and able to some extent, but involved in other things. I don’t blame them one bit; this is my baby and I have to figure out how to help her grow up while I still can. Now that I’m not drinking I might last a little longer on this earth.
Lilly and Trinity Wall, the possible funding sources, have stated goals for their grants, and my project doesn’t particularly fit – assuming I could satisfy their grant proposal requirements. They don’t generally fund a one-man shop, and who can blame them? True, if they somehow made an exception, mine might be one worth looking at, but what happens after I’m gone? That’s why they need an organization, evidence of stability, not just a good beginning. I don’t have an organization; what I’ve got is a community. It’s amorphous, literally ether-eal; it’s the internet, for crying out loud. They’re used to buildings, job descriptions, minutes from the Annual Meeting, and pictures of poor children going to school, villagers and their new clean well; not me and my wireless keyboard with a Prayer Book in arm’s reach – in my bedroom, no less.
What should I do, God?
You know, but I’ll write this down anyway, that my biggest stumbling block is that I don’t want to ask for money or profit from this. I’ve posted your services 10,000 times now and never once was it for money. I run the sites to thank you for my house, a roof overhead, a place where I’ve put roots down next to my flowers and tomatoes. And you know too that I’ve benefited from this more than all those 1.3 million visitors combined. You know what I’m like, good and bad, and I know what you’re like, all good. I completely identify with the man Jesus talked about who found a pearl of great price. He sold everything he had, to get that pearl.
It’s all I have now, and you know that too. No job, few friends, no family; no prospects of ever getting them back. No income – and you hear my prayers about that, ’cause it scares me. I’m doing nothing here but operating on faith, like you told us to. And it’s working out so far. I don’t begrudge you any of this; I’m happy for my life. I’m confident that relying on you is sufficient, and you’ve never let me down.
Meanwhile it’s quite clear that I’m boxing myself in; the whole point of this is “Yes, but.” Yes, I want the money but I’m not willing to ask for it; yes, I want the site to grow but that takes money. So help me get out of the trap I’m in; show me the Way.
(I’m thinking of Marcia and spiritual direction now; of Stephen and all my mentors, of Julie with the dialysis, and Clint the “kid” of 60 taking printed Morning Prayer to the old folks at St. Peter’s, of all my letter-writers and commenters, my small donors and other helpers. Next month is the “feast of Matt S.,” whom I barely remember, just enough to know he gave me a helpful idea last year that I was so grateful for I wrote down his name. I’m not alone here and of course I do have friends.
(I’m also thinking of the people I met last weekend at St. John’s, Crawfordsville, who asked me to speak about all this for the first time. They were lively, enthusiastic, and I guess I did okay; I remember telling them, concerning their own website, “There’s no reason this is taking place at my house instead of yours; those 1.3 million visitors I’ve had could have been coming to you. You have to provide people a reason to come. Find a need and go meet it.”)
I’m willing to do whatever work it takes to build this little cathedral of the mind. If that means asking for money I’ll ask; if that means learning a new program I’ll learn it. I’m willing to starve in the streets if it would glorify you, but I really doubt it would.
Meanwhile this much I’m clear on. I do not want to be Rabbi Wolpe, a “public figure” with a following on Facebook (he now advertises himself as “the #1 pulpit rabbi in America,” but who compiled the rankings and what’s a “pulpit rabbi”?), or a televangelist or megapreacher. This isn’t about me. I’m not essential to this operation, which isn’t much more than the Bible, the Prayer Book and keyboarding. The Church, or better yet the Holy Spirit, has given me and given us objective tools, a roadmap of the Way. Anyone who can read a map or a psalm can get to where they need to go. I understand that building up the worship leader as the focal point is the way to grow a TV ministry or a megachurch; those things don’t interest me. (And now that Robert Schuller is 80, his Crystal Cathedral is in receivership while his kids fight it out for his throne. “The Lion in Winter” was interesting, but the Schullers are just banal.) To Episcopalians nothing depends on who the worship leader is, and I’m happy with that. I’m secure in my relationship with you and nothing else matters. Let me be forgotten when I’m dead – but do let the services go on.
As long as I’m here I’ll continue to think up new ways to draw people together and draw them to you. I’ve told you my ideas; please show me better ones. Give me your directions and I’ll do my best. Today I’m close to my limit of knowing what to do; I’ve started a new page and I’ve got those galleries in mind. What next? Say the word.
Thank you for what my life has been these Daily Office years. Even when I’m howling in frustration I’m having fun. You are… what words? Unbelievable, unimaginable, ineffable, pure goodness. I like hanging out with you.
And since I know you never stop working, never stop loving, never quit drawing us to you, here’s what I’m saying: I need more task, because otherwise I’ll just continue this indefinitely. I need more supervision, a little more face-time.
Here I am; send me.