Like emailing, we’re all reading way more than we realize. The volume of material we are expected to read in the form of emails and texts and notifications would knock our counterparts from three decades ago flat on their backs. Then it was memos and letters and newspapers. Now, you can’t even watch the news or sports on television without being required to read a constantly moving chyron and sidebars on top of sidebars.
Daily life has multiplied our reading load and we haven’t really noticed, but the leisure reading we’ve all added we certainly have noticed, though leisure is the last thing it gives us. All the email newsletters, tweets, and think-pieces posted on Facebook, all the blogs (!): very little of it feels restorative and edifying, so much of it feels like catching up, desperately trying to not miss the take that will become the definitive one.
My “Sent Items” folder in Outlook contains 29 emails labeled “Yesterday,” which means that I sent almost 30 pieces of communication through email in a single day. Some of it was from the computer in my office, and some of it was from my phone. A few were from my computer at home. Some were several sentences in length, while others a few words.
30 is not a lot of emails for one day, but if the year was 1983 and those emails were written letters or typed memos or even scribbled post-its, 30 would seem exhausting. You’d wonder what else you even did in a day.
But it’s so easy, so fluid. The mechanics of typographic communication are so thoroughly integrated into our every minute that we hardly think about them, and with that integration has become a massive relaxation of the standards and conventions guiding that communication. Who addresses emails to “Dear So-And-So?” A quick scan of the first lines of those emails I sent yesterday reveals most of them have no address at all.
Still, all day long we are stopping what we are doing to think intentionally about something we want to convey to someone, formulating it with some level of care, and then sending it. It’s work we don’t think of as work, at least not consciously. But I’m pretty sure our brains and bodies are treating it as such.
I got a new colleague last week, and every time I get a new colleague I remember the counsel a very wise former colleague gave me when I was new to her: begin as you intend to continue. It means don’t race out of the gate with a level of energy you can’t sustain. Think in terms of years, not weeks. The rewards for impressing people early are tangible, but not all that durable.
New colleagues provide a moment to revisit the beginning and how it has gone since. Have I continued in the way I intended when I started? In the year 2022, “intend” is doing a lot more work than before. Nobody intended the conditions of these past two years, and so in lots of ways how we started is not how we have continued. That feels mostly to the good.
Yet I am wondering these days if the intentions we started with still have something to offer, or if they’re gone for good.
I sat in a pew for church yesterday, third from the front on the font side, right behind our class of Confirmation students. A baby gurgled and squawked somewhere behind me throughout the service, and I exercised the needed discipline to not turn and look. My look would have been only curiosity, not judgment, but I was sure it would have been received as the latter. So I didn’t look.
When I got up with the Confirmation students and introduced them along with all of their leaders, I named the two leaders who weren’t there. I hadn’t seen them that morning, and so I just said their names and added that they couldn’t be here today. After Confirmation I returned to the pew.
When the service ended I stood up and causally looked around to find the baby. There she was, being held in a side pew by her mother, the Confirmation leader I said couldn’t be here today.
In 1994 I bought a cd by a Scottish band who’s song I’d heard a few times on the radio and really liked. The album was a revelation, and I instantly started telling my friends about it. They shrugged their shoulders.
Several months later, a freshman in college, I spent money I didn’t have to purchase their earlier album and played it in my dorm room ad nauseam, such that my roommates took to spoofing the band’s name to tease me.
Spring of that year they released a new album and I instantly bought it and poured over the intricate liner notes and made copies of it and played it everywhere I went. One of that album’s songs broke out, and they were all over the radio. To this day, if you mention the band, that’s the only song anyone knows.
There was another album two years later. I bought it at the Tower Records store across the street from my summer job while on lunch break and spent all summer playing it just as much as all the others. But it didn’t go anywhere commercially. And that was pretty much that. By the time they released their fifth album in 2000 they were a non-factor in the U.S., so I had to download it on Napster; it wasn’t even released here.
The band broke up. The lead singer released four solo albums, and I dutifully acquired them and learned them front-to-back. Then last year they got back together and released an album of entirely new material. It’s all great, of course, and I’ve worn it out in my kitchen and my car.
And last night I saw them. In a packed theater. It was wild.
For 30 years I’ve been the only person I know who cares about this band. I have internalized their catalogue to an almost obsessive degree, and a not-insignificant part of my identity has been wrapped up in the fact that I am as into them as I am in a way that nobody else I know is. And last night I stood shoulder-to-shoulder with complete strangers who are as into them as I am. It took almost 30 years, but I finally found my people.
If I can come to understand, conclusively, why someone behaves the way they do (myself included), my explanation of that discovery will contribute to making a positive change. But the explanation is not itself the solution.
“What next?” is the rest of the way. “What?” moves us from investigation to iteration, and “next” requires us merely to venture the next step; we aren’t declaring once-for-all solutions here. If this step fails, we’re back to “What next?”
I ran a retreat with our 8th grade Confirmation students Friday night and Saturday morning at the church. Time was when we loaded them all in a school bus on Friday night and barreled our way through rush hour traffic to Michigan for the weekend, but the last time we did that was 2019 (the spring retreat was the first covid domino to fall in 2020). Now we send them home Friday and hope they come back Saturday. Most do. Many do.
I build the retreat around a version of the profession of faith questions, the one from the new edition of the Book of Common Worship. There are four of them. The first two are about renouncing sin and calling Jesus “Lord and Savior.” The third one asks you to obey Jesus’ word, and that’s where some students get stuck. “Obey” is a part of what jams them up. Progressives haven’t been comfortable with that term in, like, forever; it’s patriarchal and authoritarian and bears down on a person’s authentic personal choice. It feels coercive.
The bigger piece of the puzzle is Jesus’ actual word. I keep it simple and crib from the Sermon on The Mount: turn the other cheek; you can’t serve God and wealth; love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; don’t worry about your life. Then I ask them if they think any of those would be challenging. Hands shoot up, and by the end of the session every command of the sermon has been targeted for complaint.
I love it.
Watching their faces, I’m reminded of what a cranky seminary professor used to say about infant baptisms, how she preferred the babies loud and wailing, because then at least somebody appreciated the gravity of the occasion. I imagine these 8th grader’s faces to be like those in the crowd of disciples that day on the mount, hearing “enemies” and thinking of the Roman soldiers who daily harassed them, hearing “wealth” and needing lunch, worrying practically every minute about their life.
Confirmation is an invitation to profess faith, and I’ve always wanted that invitation to have the integrity of possible refusal, at least for now, and on the right grounds, not that church and faith and Jesus are boring but that they’re too demanding.
Before the session ends we rehearse the answer to this third question about obeying Jesus’ word: “I will, with God’s help.”