Friends, something shy of fifty years ago, I sat down to a Gandalf modem and a teletype machine having, the day before, schlepped several pounds of punch cards across the McGill campus to the IBM 360 bunker. I was awaiting some output and hoped that my program had been compiled overnight. It had a low system priority and so I couldn’t be sure. I had learned several computer languages including COBOL, FORTRAN and PL1 and I was now putting my knowledge to use in mathematical modelling. And so began my lifelong love affair, and sometime-near-obsession, with the realm of computers and what they have to offer.
By 1981, I was in the thrall of an early personal computer, a Kaypro II running the CPM operating system. It had a tiny little screen and was housed in a steel case. It was an hernia-inducing “portable”. With this machine, I managed a flat-file mailing list for my first parish.
In the mid-eighties, a friend and I designed a congregational RDMS (relational database management system) program called Paraclete. It was ahead of its time in a world which was still driven by DOS and in which a first stable version of Windows (3.1) did not yet exist. In the years that followed, a succession of boxes came to extend my world in a number of directions such that, in 1995, friends and I built our first of several websites, including Lift Up Your Hearts (worship and spirituality connections and resources) and a proof of concept version of the ELCIC website. Most church folk, however, still didn’t do e-mail.
Meiderlin’s Children was one of my most gratifying efforts. Never heard of it? It was the name of a largely clandestine group, the members of which were working for the full-inclusion of gay people in the life of the church. It was a safe space when many church places and spaces were not. It flew under the radar as a distributed social medium without physical analogue. It was a locus for strategy and succour and it was online. Moreover, there was a companion document repository which served allies for many years.
A decade on and email was in increasingly wide use and the stage was set for the now-familiar array of social media—although these, like earlier technologies, would take a while to mature and catch on. It’s hard to believe that Facebook was only born in 2004 and Twitter in 2006 and that neither was in widespread use until about 10 or 12 years ago. I signed on to Twitter when I joined the ELCIC national staff in 2010 having joined Facebook a year or two earlier. I saw these platforms as tools of the trade with Facebook having some interesting personal dimensions and each having commonalities and uniquenesses. The early Facebook and Twitter are almost unrecognizable in their present incarnations. As I write, a “new” Facebook is in “beta”, meaning you’ll get a whole new “look and feel” very soon. I’m always playing with beta versions and developers’ editions of software.
I never did join Instagram. Or Snapchat. Or anything else. Well, almost anything else. I met Barbara online over a conversation about Lantians. (She meant one thing. I meant something else. But now I love her, so it doesn’t matter.) I don’t remember the name of the platform. Also, I blog occasionally, as in this. I used to write brief pieces on Facebook but eventually the Facebook police discouraged the practice. In any event, for the last decade, Facebook and Twitter have been a significant part of my everyday life and now that will change.
Since sometime before retirement, I’ve been mulling over all sorts of truths one of which has to do with my engagement of social media. Simply put, Facebook & Twitter often take more out of me than I can healthily contribute. Moreover, I never knew there could be so much to do in retirement, even in lock-down. Our flower garden is taking off and I am now reading books which are not required reading by anyone other than me or my friend, Harold.
With this in mind, I’ve decided to give Facebook and Twitter a rest. I may stay with my blog. I may not. All such media have the capacity to be life affirming and soul enriching—or not. There is some wonderful stuff going on and some wonderful stuff being born. Faith has a big online presence, as do spirituality, politics, justice and the arts. This is stuff I care about. What I know of myself, however, is that it is hard for me to be online and not to engage the breadth of our interesting world as it is interpreted through a particular media lens. I simply don’t do well at leaving things alone. I get drawn in, and before I know it, it’s tomorrow. No petty pace for me.
So this will be my last day on Twitter and Facebook. Whether or when I might return is a mystery even to me. My family, my garden, my health and my neighbourhood need some attention. So do some relationships and friendships. Three additional factors underlie my present disposition and desire to call it a day.
Factor 1. Facebook uses a strict algorithm to curate/filter/dish-up/select those friends who will appear in my feed. Therefore, Facebook effectively decides that some of my friends will never appear. Ever. Facebook favours close geographic proximity; people with lots of common friends and who share common “likes”; and so on. But I didn’t sign on to the Internet to discover new ways of meeting the people who live next door. Rather, I want to maintain my life-long friendships with people in P.E.I. and Germany, a random Lutheran guy in Russia and a liturgy wonk in New Zealand. On the one hand, I can’t reasonably maintain the same level of intensity in all my friend-ships. On the other, I don’t want some of my friends to be consigned to the realm of outer darkness.
Factor 2. Social media are first and foremost advertising media. The rest comes at a steep price. It’s gotten so that I must pay the purveyors not to advertise their wares. I think that’s perverse.
Factor 3. In this COVID-19-infused age, there is just so much that titillates or distresses without having more served up with every page refresh along with another ad—or worse, the same ad! I dislike living in a world which can often do no more than obsess on the sensational or the distressing. (In fairness, even my faithful CBC has been overrun by COVID-19 news delivered with a CNN-like “this just in” and “in breaking news” breathlessness. Sure this news is important. But it’s not everything. Life goes on if fearfully, wonderfully and differently. COVID-19 is not an exception to life. It is life. But we miss the trees for the forest.)
Perhaps I will visit occasionally. On First Wednesdays? Seasonally? When I can’t sleep? Who knows. Sometimes I may read but not write. Or I may try to find new ways to maintain particular connections so that I not sacrifice everything. But I’m tired. This night affords me a right moment—a perfect hinge-point in time—to step back and/or move on. I am grateful for all of the companionship over many years. I have experienced great tenderness and learned many, many things.
About 20 years ago, I and a number of colleagues wrote some prayers for the Consultation on Common Texts of which I was a member for ten years. These were gathered and published in Revised Common Lectionary Prayers (Fortress, 2002). Of my contributions, my favourite is this prayer for Easter. It has had a life in various publications and contexts over the last two decades. It was latterly prayed in a gathering of women pastors in Latvia. Women can no longer be ordained in Latvia and that is a terrible thing and this is a terrible time. Anyway, there are some close-variants of this prayer and I’m quoting from memory …
faithful women broke
the news of Jesus’ resurrection,
and our world was changed forever.
Teach us to keep faith with them,
that our witness might be as bold,
our love as deep,
and our faith as true. Amen.
Safe journey, friends. Stay in and be well. Hold tight but reach out.
All Easter blessings to you and to all whom you hold dear!
Goodbye for now.
André Lavergne — writing from a settler-descendant’s home on the traditional lands of the Neutral, Anishnaabe, and Haudenosaunee peoples on the Haldimand Tract (1784).