For about a year now, I’ve served as interim pastor for a church up by the Ohio River. Who knew when I started last December that we would go into state-by-state shutdowns of various proportions for the vast majority of that time. It’s certainly been a voyage of discovery.
Like many churches, we’ve had to go fast-forward on technology. Our particular church has enjoyed the Sunday, 11:00 a.m. radio slot since WWII. But we quickly saw the need for more. What started with our AV guy’s holding a smart phone camera sideways on the front row, (sending some meagre video out on one of the social network platforms) has now morphed into a multi-camera, multi-platform, live stream of our services (Sunday a.m., p.m., and Wednesday p.m.). Former members around the nation have had an online look, and our Hispanic congregation reports viewers in Latin America. We’ve upgraded our closed-circuit capabilities (for folks nudged out of the main auditorium due to our governor’s occupancy-density rules), upgraded our internet routers, and trained a new generation of videographers, some as young as 10.
Zoom’s been an amazing asset for prayer gatherings, committee meetings, Bible-study groups, discipleship seminars, and such, with the faithful popping up on each other’s screens for an hour or more of fellowshipping, decision-making, supplicating (the Almighty), instructing, and otherwise conversing. Very few of us had any idea there was such an option going in (or that we would need it for months and months and months). Still, I’ve found that one of the best things going for the pastor today is very low tech—the handwritten note.
Back when the “plague” started, a staff member gave me a list of a couple dozen members with small businesses likely threatened by the strictures. Over the next two weeks, I worked down through the names, writing a three-or-four sentence note to each, personalizing them, but repeating certain phrases. As I recall, I told them I was praying that “blessings would flow their way” in these “challenging times” and that they would “prosper spiritually” as they watched for the renewal of their financial prospects. Something like that.
Right away, I’d be stopped in the hall on Sunday mornings by words of thanks, and I may have said, in effect, “It was nothing.” And in one sense, it was, for it took so little time and effort to jot down a few lines. The church had nice note cards and envelopes handy, and took care of the postage. But, as those who receive handwritten notes know, it’s not nothing to get one, a fact of which I’m reminded as my interim pastorate draws to a close and some folks are adding a few lines of appreciation to cards they put in my box at church.
Today, we typically open our mailboxes to find a batch of promotional pieces and a bill or two, but nothing with a first-class stamp. Email, texting, and social media postings have taken their place. So when we get an old-fashioned, honest-to-goodness letter, whether typed or handwritten, it fairly shouts with significance.
I’m reminded of the fortune of neon signs, which, in the early twentieth-century, provided exclamation points to the fronts of businesses, but which were supplanted by back-lit, translucent plastic signs, such as you see on tall poles announcing gas stations along the interstate. But the latter have become so common that neon is used to grab our attention, e.g., the “Hot Now” signs that light up periodically at Krispy Kreme. That little neon notice jumps out at you, as does that little letter in your mailbox.
The power of a handwritten note also reminds me of the impact of a brief hospital visit. Early in my first pastorate, I was astonished to see that I could work for a dozen hours on a sermon that had an impact not unlike that of a hand removed from a bucket of water—little or no trace left. But then a parishioner would never forget the time I dropped by their hospital room for a brief word of encouragement and prayer. Five minutes tops. Small time investment, big gratitude. Go figure.
I have to admit that there is some trepidation in handwriting. With computers, you can make changes and erase mistakes. You don’t have the agony of botching your spelling in a down-page paragraph, driving you to scrap the whole thing and start over. You can monkey with what’s on your screen with very little stress. And then there’s the issue of cursive writing. I didn’t know it was an issue until a student of rhetoric in one of my Chicagoland adjunct classes delivered a speech on the torture and shame teachers visit upon their wards in forcing them to tie the c with the a with the t in one continuous sweep of the pen. I think she had tears in her eyes as she recounted this childhood trauma. Okay. Then print. But put it down in ink.
And it doesn’t have to be eloquent. It’s more the fact of the writing than the content of the message. When my Detroit grandmother died back in the early 60s, my businessman grandfather received a two-word note from S. S. Kresge (founder of Kresge and K-Mart stores). It read, simply, “I heard.” And it was enough.
As I’ve grown more aware of the power of the written note, I’ve become less concerned about it looks. If I leave out a word, I don’t trash the piece, but simply insert it with a little v-shaped caret. And the other day, when my note ran over onto the back, where the card-stock was slick and the pen struggled for traction, I borrow a fine-point Sharpie to over-write the sketchy script and then write a word of apology for the mess in the margin. Purists would reel in horror. But I think it signals effort and authenticity. And recourse to this patchwork option helps ease the paralysis that comes from the fear that you’ll blow it and have to start over. And more notes get written.
Thank God for electronics. But thank God for pen and ink. And, by the way, there are some very cool commemorative stamps down at the post office, just the thing to adorn an envelope resplendent with your more-or-less artful handwritten address.
Mark Coppenger is interim pastor of First Baptist Church in Henderson, Kentucky, and a member of the BibleMesh board.