Here we are, practitioners of memos:

We send email and we receive it,

We copy it and forward it and save it and delete it. 

We write to move the data,

And organize the program and keep people informed — 

And know and control and manage.

Walter Brueggemann, “Practitioners of Memo” in Prayers for Privileged People.

I’m not exactly sure when I became a writer. I suspect I acquired this way of life by chance — like being left-handed or having a contagious medical condition that may go into remission but can never be completely alleviated.

If the latter is the case, I most certainly caught the ailment from Christa Allan, my high school English teacher-turned fiction author. She made us write in our journals every day of our junior year. If we chose to share what we had written with the class, the nonjudgmental response would always be the same: “Thank you for sharing.” Those words met our antsy attempts to express ourselves like the reassuring voice of the preacher offering words of absolution.

Though I am a writer, I must confess that I don’t often think about the ways my everyday writing of emails, reports and newsletters helps me to live life abundantly in relationship to God and others. I’m grateful for modern communications, but I wonder if, along the way, we have lost the art of relational writing.

If our everyday writing is to serve not only the task at hand but also the relationships in our lives, we may need to reconsider how we embrace our digital lives. We may need to slow down. We may need to lay aside our desires for immediate gratification and control. We may need to write differently.

I’m still learning how to write. It’s a way of life that often eludes my best efforts to grasp the humility and patience it requires. I suspect this is a frustrating feature of all vocations. Like Jacob and the angel (Genesis 32:22-31), answering the call of a vocation is something of a wrestling match: you struggle and struggle with it until finally it blesses you with a limp.

Writing as a calling

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann is on to something spiritually profound when he laments that we have all become practitioners of memos. Immersed in what he has elsewhere called a “technological consumerism,” we write to other people to inform, organize, manage and control.

Of course this is understandable. Much of the advances in digital media have aimed to make communication more efficient and more productive. But relationships built on efficiency and productivity have limits.

Writing doesn’t have to be mere manipulation of data. Our Lutheran tradition offers the digital age a different way of approaching our work with and for others in the world. It begins with that watery entrance into God’s family that we call baptism. It continues as a lifelong effort to hear where God is calling us to give ourselves away. It’s these callings to give ourselves away that we call vocations.

Both the apostle Paul and Martin Luther were masters of the art of writing letters.

Hearing Paul’s letters read every Sunday, I’m struck by how he begins and ends each letter. Paul’s letter to the Philippians, for example, opens with: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you …”(Philippians 1:2-4).

While as Lutherans we often look to Paul for our theological formulas, we ought to also remember that for him the theological isn’t easily separated from the pastoral, relational demands of his ministry. Paul’s letters aren’t only offerings of his theological astuteness, they are offerings of himself.

Luther, too, knew this relational connection. In his scholastic writing, he is often forceful and unapologetic. However, in his letters to civil leaders, other reformers and ordinary Christians, we find a Luther who is more sensitive to the situation at hand.

For Paul and Luther, letter writing was a self-offering, an extension of their relational ministries.

So how might we recover this lost art of writing letters?

Even if we have all become “practitioners of memo,” as Brueggemann suggests, two forms of letter writing seem to have avoided the digital revolution: love letters and thank-you notes.

In love and gratitude we affirm both the space between one another and the miracle of bridging that gap. We affirm the uniqueness of the other and also our shared interdependence. Perhaps this is why we still prefer our love letters and thank-you notes to be handwritten. We want to see the words written in their own hand. We want to hold the paper in our own hand.

Our contemporary lives are full of writing and, in a way, we are all called upon to write. I invite you to join me in writing beyond memos. Whether we find ourselves writing on fine stationery or tablets, may we not forget the space between each of us. May we remember that our words carry little pieces of ourselves and have both the potential to hurt and to heal. As we offer ourselves via our words, may we remember the Word who came to dwell among us.

And if you dare to write this way, may it be met with grace and assurance. If no one else does, allow me to say ahead of time, “Thanks for sharing.”

Timothy K. Snyder
Timothy K. Snyder is an instructor of practical theology at Wartburg Theological Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa.  

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