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Live Blogging Lent: Fasting from Fast? (Section 3)

By Mark D. Roberts | Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Part 5 of series: Live Blogging Lent
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Last Thursday I put up some comments about and excerpts from a book: Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything by James Gleick. On Friday I wrote about how I have experienced “faster” in my professional life, using the example of interoffice communication. I concluded by suggesting that the ability to communicate much faster with colleagues might or might not be a plus. Today I want to explain a bit further what I mean.

Take email, for example. It enables me to engage in almost instant communication with a colleague when, twenty-five years ago, a similar conversation using interoffice memos might have taken a week. This enables me and my coworkers to move projects along a quicker pace than we would have been able to do in the past. When we’re facing time pressure, this is helpful. It allows us to get more done in less time, at least some of the time.

Plus, email has led to significant cost savings. When I began my professional life, I dictated my memos, which may have saved a few minutes of keyboarding time, but not much. Then my dictated memo had to be typed and prepared for sending by a secretary. Then it had to be transported by the interoffice mail person at work. Once the recipient had received the memo, a similar process began. My guess is that at least a couple of days a month of secretarial time are no longer needed because of email. Savings like this add up over time.

But there are downsides to email, of course. Perhaps my biggest pet peeve is the time-wasting tendency of many emailers to send copies to everybody and their brother or sister. Somebody sends out an email to a dozen people that requires a response only to the sender, but half of the recipients click the “Reply All” button, filling multiple inboxes with unnecessary verbiage.

Even more dangerous, I believe, is the tendency for some people to use email as a vehicle for communicating when they are angry. This is a VERY BAD IDEA! (Yes, I am shouting. No, I am not currently angry.) During my last ten years at Irvine Presbyterian Church, I’d estimate that at least a third of church conflict was directly related to emails sent in haste when a writer was angry. And because email has a kind of anonymous, informal feeling, people sometimes say in email what they would never say in person, or even in a snail mail letter. To make matters worse, they often copy other people in the process simply because they can. This multiplies the anger and misunderstandings, turning a relatively small disagreement into a major mess. After seeing the disasters caused my rushed, angry emails, I resolved some time ago NEVER to send an email when I was angry. Mostly I’ve kept this resolution. Mostly.

There are other problems associated with email, and these bring us closer to the themes of Lent and the whole notion of fasting from “faster.” The first of these has to do with the expectations created by email. Where I once expected that it would take about a week for me to hear back from a colleague to whom I had written a memo, I now expect a response within hours, or even within minutes. A day’s lag time can be frustrating, even stirring up anger. As Gleick aptly demonstrates in Faster, when a new technology enables us to do some task more quickly, at first we are impressed and delighted. But then we adjust our expectations. We no longer enjoy the speed of the technology, but rather accept it as a given. Thus things may be moving along faster, but we’re not any happier. In fact, we might even be less happy are more stressful than in a slower day.

I first noted the way email had changed expectations in about my tenth year as Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church. I was doing a sermon series on Sabbath, and became convicted about my own tendency to work every day without a break. Yes, I had Mondays off, but I would usually work at least part of Mondays in order to get a jump on the week. God had rested for a day during the first week, and had included the Sabbath in the Ten Commandments, but for some crazy reason I felt as if I didn’t need to honor the Sabbath.

This changed as I worked through all of the biblical passages on Sabbath, including the New Testament texts that teach us to avoid legalisms that so easily become entangled with Sabbath-keeping. I realized that I needed to set apart a day in which I didn’t work (expect in emergencies). Given my family life and my unusual work patter, I decided that my Sabbath would begin on Sunday after church (usually around 1:00 p.m.) and extend for twenty-four hours (at least). I would devote one day a week to rest, prayer, family, and restoration. At least that was the plan.

One evening at the meeting of my Session (the elders and pastors of a Presbyterian church), I explained what I had been thinking and my conclusion that I needed to rest from Sunday afternoon through Monday afternoon. I told the Session that I would, of course, be available by phone in any kind of genuine emergency. And, yes, I realized that sometimes I would need to work during my Sabbath (a Sunday evening wedding, for example). But my plan was to refrain from working, and that meant, among other things, that I would not be checking email for twenty-four hours. I would do at least a quick email check on Monday evening, and make sure I had responded to everything in my inbox by Tuesday evening.

Several of the elders of my Session spoke words of affirmation. Some even thought about joining me in this adventure in resting. But several elders were distressed. “What do you mean that you’re not going to check your email?” one of them asked. I explained again what I meant. But this did not satisfy him. “How can you not check your email for a whole day? What if I send you something and need an answer?” he responded. I said it wouldn’t be easy, but it seemed like the right thing for me to do, given my understanding of Scripture. “But I can’t do that,” he said, with some anger in his voice. “My boss expects me to be available 24/7.” He pulled out his Blackberry. “I’m supposed to be checking and responding to email all the time. I can’t take a Sabbath. And I expect you to be available to us in the same way.” I told him I was sorry, but that I didn’t think I could do what he wanted from me.

I’m not sure that elder was ever satisfied with my decision to try and rest from work for a day a week. Part of his unhappiness was personal. He lived in a world that demanded his constant availability, and he resented the fact that I could choose a different way of living. But much of his unhappiness was a result simply of his expectations. He had come to expect, partly because of my own previous pattern, that I would be checking my email at least once a day, a preferably more often. Work didn’t belong simply within work hours, even if these hours stretched throughout the day for six days a week. Work claimed the whole week, or, better, it claimed us throughout the whole week, without a break. God may have rested on the Sabbath, but we can’t expect to do the same.

“Faster” (the concept, not the book) is increasingly dominating our lives, as Faster (the book) aptly demonstrates. It may have improved certain aspects of life, but at a high cost.

Lent, it seems to me, provides an opportunity for us to slow down and reflect upon our lives. It offers the chance to slow down enough to examine our pace of living. It invites us to fast, not just from enjoyable food, but from fast living.

Tomorrow I want to add one further concern that connects Faster to Lent.

Topics: Lent |


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