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October 2, 2007

Guest Commentary: Recovering lost messages

I opened my computer the other day to discover that 200 or so e-mail messages were gone.They were sitting in my inbox, waiting for some kind of action: personal letters awaiting a reply; articles to be read when I had time; work-related items that required a response. Vanished. Disappeared. Vaporized.So far, the computer magicians haven’t been able to make them reappear, and I’m faced with the possibility that these various messages and reminders are not coming home.I recall one or two important pieces of business. How many more were there? One personal e-mail I recall was waiting for a careful, intentional response. What if I’d forgotten it altogether? And how many am I not recalling? How many people are likely to conclude that I’m a jerk for not replying to a sensitive, heartfelt letter?I’m not the only one who describes his or her computer as “my brain.” It holds a great deal of my memory and marching orders. To have a part of it inexplicably erased is to find myself in the place of countless TV characters who have amnesia, like Claire in “Lost,” who couldn’t remember pieces of her life.This e-mail experience is like a primer in the pain of losing one’s mind.And it re-enforces a frequent saying of a former colleague: “Technology is great, except when it’s not.”But the experience has also linked to a set of larger questions I’ve had lately about where I get my life messages: where I go to remember who I am and what I am called on to do; where I place my trust — really — not just in predictable church-speak.Many people are raised in a faith tradition where they are guided to believe the Bible, or to accept a set of doctrines, or to follow a prescribed pattern of behavior. Then one day they realize that they don’t necessarily buy all that they’ve been told. It’s as if their inbox of messages has been erased. Now what? Who am I now? What can I recall that I need to retain? Where do I go from here?Some fortunate ones may find an expert who can restore the old messages intact, making it possible to return seamlessly to business as usual.Others are so burned by the sudden emptiness of their inbox that they insulate themselves from future disappointment, like the rejected suitor who vows never to love again.A great many are so frightened by the loss of the safe, old way that they repress its absence. They pretend the messages are still present in the inbox like always. “No problem here,” they feign, usually a bit too shrilly.Then there are those who, despite having lost some of their connections to the past, begin gradually to piece together what they are able, keeping their eyes open as they feel their way forward, trusting that things lost can be found — if not in the same form, perhaps in a new and better form. Jesus said, “Those who seek will find.”  Joe Phelps is pastor of Highland Baptist Church, at Grinstead and Cherokee Roads. Contact him at jphelps@hbclouky.org