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  • The Rev. Barbara Ballenger

Rector’s Note: Lessons from the Scroll-3.14.24

At Eucharist on Wednesday, we talked about the overwhelming prospect of knowing about and responding to tragedies that are unfolding a world away, especially with the tsunami of information that hits us via social media.  It can be easy to tune out altogether or turn the volume way down so we can manage our own emotions, or get through our day.

In short, how are we to hold global tragedy in our hearts without breaking them to pieces? And that’s a fair question, when there is so much to attend to right at hand.

Our friend, Dr.  Sharrona Pearl, who teaches at Drexel University with my husband Jess, recently wrote an exquisite article in the online magazine The Revealer on her own Jewish practice of slow learning as an antidote to the shallow scrolling and hot takes on social media that oppress and mislead. It’s called From Scrolling to The Scroll: A Model for Learning about Crises that Demand Our Attention.  In it, Sharrona discusses the cyclical reading of Torah and other Jewish texts as a practice that allows for a different kind of learning, of deep consideration. To return to texts again and again over time allows one to see changes in oneself and in the world against a stable story.

She writes: “At this time of unimaginable tragedy and widespread war, famine, and needless death, I offer as an antidote to screen-scrolling this much older model of the scroll. I offer the benefits of cyclicality and repetition as a technology for taking time. I offer, based on my experiences working with Jewish texts and sacred scrolls, slow learning as a way to counter the shallow, sometimes incorrect, and often dangerous assumptions of knowledge about the incredibly complicated conflict in the Middle East that has migrated from the online sphere to everyday life. I personally feel differently about the conflict than I did in those terrible, heartbreaking days after October 7th. My heart is still broken. It is all still terrible, even more so. But many things have changed.”

Here is a lesson for our Christian community as well, as we engage with our own sacred texts and with the heartbreak of how to be people of hope and healing in an overwhelming world.  Our collective Scripture reading also has a cyclical nature, especially during Holy Week and Easter. Indeed we have our own three-year pattern of reading the Scriptures collectively and repetitively.  Folded within it is the invitation to engage in the slow learning of a story that remains stable against an unstable world.

This was the kind of learning that shaped Jesus’s own understanding of his identity and of the work that God was doing in the world through him. As a Jew, he was formed by this same cyclical, repetitive and stable reading of Torah. With his people, he marinated in the study of the Word. Amidst the turbulence of Roman occupation, the chaotic diversity of the region that he lived in, disagreements among his own people, the story of God’s devotion and fidelity to Israel was a constant. It shaped who Jesus was and how he walked in the world.

It shapes this understanding in us as well.

But it’s not just the content that informs us, it’s the practice of how we engage with these narratives that deeply shape us – how we consider the texts before us.  Sharrona challenges us to apply this practice to how we read the texts of the global news that are unspooling around us. Read them like one may study a sacred scroll.

“I suggest, we pause,” Sharrona writes. “We use the model of cyclical learning to reframe our relationship to on-demand information. We look at our screens and we sit with what we see. We take time to reflect, using social media as the beginning rather than the end of the learning process. Instead of scrolling on our screens, we reimagine our screens as scrolls, with texts that serve as the basis of investigation, learning, and understanding. Instead of virtually forwarding and sharing at the click of a button, we discuss – in real-time, and real space – what we’ve read and what we imagine we know. We return, revisit, repeat. It works.”

In our conversation on Wednesday, Shirley Smith reminded us of the power of turning to the printed word in the newspaper or magazine, instead of relying only on the slide of the screen.  Taking the time to read a lengthy article in the Inquirer slows us down, and allows us to pause and make time for analysis, she pointed out. One antidote to the onslaught of information may be choosing information sources that do not hit us like a firehose.

Sharrona points out that the act of taking time is critical here.  I wonder if it’s the most radical and resistant part of the transformative act of slow learning.

“It’s one of those phrases that has become so common that we don’t consider the language itself, which implies a process, an action, even a transaction: something is actively taken,” Sharrona writes. “We take time to: make sense; do work; rest; and we take time for: a project; a process; ourselves. It is both a demand and a gift. And it can – and perhaps uniquely at this moment ought to be – a sacred duty. In the era of content consumption and scrolling through headlines and hot-takes, when it comes to how we know, we have stopped taking time.”

Perhaps as a final practice in these last days of Lenten fasting, we might consider slowing down the speed of our social media scrolling and taking time to read slowly and pray deeply as spiritual practice.  This is essential as we stay present to the heart-breaking news about the war between Israel and Hamas and the unfathomable devastation that is unfolding every day in the Holy Land. It is essential as we find our voice and ask ourselves what we must say at this moment.

 As people of faith, our stories hold a loving God as a constant in our human condition over time and space.  Our deep attention to the global stories at hand may help us to see how God is walking among us in the overwhelming complexities of our human existence and fostering repair and transformation that we cannot yet recognize.

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