I balked recently when someone said, "You've got quite a ministry online." I've never considered what I do a ministry. Ministries provide healthcare in developing countries and feed and shelter the homeless. Chatting on the internet hardly seems in the same league. And yet whenever I go online, I try to share the hope that's within me.
I've now been online for more than two decades—longer than some of my kids have been alive. Back in 1987 I began "chatting" through CompuServe at a breakneck modem speed of 300 baud. Chugging along one letter at a time, words strung themselves together on my monochrome green monitor in a text-only format, and I had plenty of time as the words became sentences to envision another person, worlds away, typing as I read—all for the price of a local phone call. I was hooked.
One friendship I forged in those early days started through my admiration for a particular musician. I'd asked a question about him on a forum, and another member named Jim answered because he admired the same musician. We began exchanging e-mails, and he soon learned I was a Christian—and I learned he was a Mormon elder living in Provo, Utah. Thus began an online friendship that, though stormy at times, continued for many years.
Both Jim and I fancied ourselves writers and were fast typists. At the height of our mutual proselytizing (which often sounded too much like, "I know you are, but what am I?"), we were exchanging pages of apologetics every day. Each line of Jim's e-mails chugged along the screen and onto my daisy-wheel printer with painfully slow force. My first computer didn't have a hard drive, so to keep from tying up the phone line during the day, I'd download Jim's letters directly to paper in the middle of the night. Typically taking hours to download and print, those single-spaced letters now fill two four-inch binders in my desk drawer.
Nearly 20 years have passed since those initial letters, and much to my chagrin, Jim is still a Mormon elder. To his chagrin, I'm still a Christian. We exchanged Christmas and birthday cards, spoke on the phone, and were generally royal pains to each other. Sometimes Jim hated me and told me so. He disapproved of my attitude, my faith, my God, but most of all, my acid keyboard, my smugness, and my apparent disregard for his feelings. I simply told him he was being a jerk, as usual. While we often joked like this, after awhile neither of us was laughing.
Over the years, I begged God not to let Jim be a "practice case" for my witnessing. Yet I've come to realize Jim has been just that. The two of us have burned so many bridges with our bluntness that I'm left praying for God to send a new Christian into Jim's life to clean up the debris I left behind. A kinder, gentler Christian. And my hope is that I'll be a kinder, gentler witness to someone else as a result of what I learned from wrangling with Jim.
When I moved on to aol, I learned the fine art of juggling multiple instant message windows. Some evenings I had seven windows on my monitor, and if no one breathed within a 50-foot radius of my computer, I could interact with each one without getting mixed up. One night, four of the windows were people in crisis mode: troubled marriages, broken parent-child relationships, or worse. After an hour of this multitask counseling, my head felt ready to explode. Yet I felt clearly God's urging to stay obedient and let him take care of the words.
I learned a man in the aol Pittsburgh chat room organized monthly real-life parties east of the city, gatherings that drew over 300 people. Wanting to meet these people in person, I decided to attend. With a name tag announcing my screen name, I hovered near the door, looking and feeling foolish as I scanned the crowd for the woman who'd promised to introduce me to everyone.
Just as I was getting ready to leave, she found me. After introducing herself, she escorted me to an older woman dressed in a crisp, red business skirt suit and pumps whose name tag read, "CD Carolyn." Before I could protest, my escort had moved on, urging Carolyn to "Tell her about yourself, dear." A large, rough hand thrust itself into mine, and a husky, deep voice behind the realistic brown wig said, "Hi, I'm Jeff."
Apparently "CD" stood for "cross-dresser."
As Jeff showed me pictures of his wife and daughter, I maintained a sense of blasé self-control. I decided I'd have my nervous breakdown later. Eventually I left the party having gained a handful of new friends who now had faces attached to their screen names. And I'd learned a valuable lesson: There are real people behind those keyboards. The world is rife with folks who are desperate for human interaction. The internet provides the means for them to reach out. They can chat from the safety of their own homes, tell you what they think of God, of Christ, of life—things they'd never tell you face to face.
These internet connections can result in meaningful friendships—and opportunities for witnessing. My e-friends and I have gone to baseball games and movies, as well as chatted regularly on the phone. And along with the fun times, I've prayed with e-friends, mailed Bibles to fuel faith discussions, and invited some to attend church with me. A few years ago, I even met and eventually married a man I met through a Christian pen pal website. God bless the internet!
Of course, I've had to learn to navigate safely through the online world, using caution when sharing personal information or meeting a new friend face to face. But I've found even some internet evils, such as chat windows that pop up late at night, asking, "What r u wearing?" can be turned into opportunities for witness.
As far as I know, none of my efforts has led to conversion—yet. But God reminds me that my job is simply to be faithful in the little things. The results are in his hands.
Where there's life—and a dsl connection—there's hope.
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