1. First up, a jaw-dropping story of “forgiveness in a vengeful world,” in the form of an NY Times obituary for Victoria Ruvolo who died this week.

Ms. Ruvolo’s widely publicized kindness toward her attacker provided emotional counterpoint to a senseless act that began in the early hours of Nov. 13, 2004. She was returning home from watching a niece sing at a recital in Amityville, also on Long Island. The turkey crashed through Ms. Ruvolo’s windshield, crushing the bones in her cheeks and jaw, fracturing the socket of her left eye, causing her esophagus to cave in and leaving her with brain trauma. Suffolk County prosecutors had wanted Mr. Cushing to serve the maximum of 25 years in prison for first-degree assault and other offenses. But Ms. Ruvolo persuasively argued that a long sentence would only turn him into a hardened criminal.

After his guilty plea in August 2005, Mr. Cushing — aware that Ms. Ruvolo had pressed for a short sentence — stopped to speak to her in the courtroom and wept profusely. She embraced him, stroked his face and patted his back. “I’m so sorry,” he said to her as he sobbed. “I didn’t mean it.”

“It’s O.K., it’s O.K.,” she replied. “I just want you to make your life the best it can be.”

Two months later, at his sentencing hearing in Suffolk County Court in Riverhead, he told her: “Your ability to forgive has had a profound effect on me. It has already made a positive change in my life.”

You can read her own account of the incident here. Just be sure you have tissues within arm’s reach.

2. Here in Charlottesville, we’re having a tough time shifting gears to Holy Week following UVA’s big victory at the NCAA tournament last week. A thrill-fest for the ages and one in which the dynamics at play are eerily religious (imputation, vicarious redemption, etc), especially considering last year’s historically catastrophic loss. The article that best captures the death-and-resurrection-fueled freedom we witnessed comes from The Ringer, “Virginia Won the National Championship Because It Learned to Stop Fearing Death.”

Bad things happen to good people and, in some cases, good sports teams. And sometimes when your worst-case scenario comes to life, it brings not only shame and sadness but also a strangely massive sense of relief. You wake up the next morning to find that the sun hasn’t exploded.

Virginia had its worst-case scenario happen last year. It lost the biggest upset in college basketball—and maybe sports—history. So this year, when the trickster gods of March Madness kept opening up doors to death, the Hoos repeatedly scoffed at them. What fate could this tournament hand them that they hadn’t lived through already? What did they possibly have to fear?

3. Next, The Cut provided the long-read of the week with its “Outsourcing Adulthood” by Maureen O’Connor. (Runner-up would be Rolling Stone’s account of “The Heavy Metal Grifter”. Considered alongside Theranos and the Fyre Festival, it would appear we’ve entered a new Golden Age of Grift). In surfacing the premium of convenience, O’Connor adds a fresh angle to the burnout phenomenon, all the while pointing to the #seculosity of work:

We are living at a time of unprecedented convenience. Any chore can be outsourced: FlyCleaners for laundry, Uber for driving, TaskRabbit for, well, anything… And if you don’t know what you want from the world, you can outsource decision-making, too. Don’t want to plan a week of meals? Order a boxed meal kit with pre-measured ingredients and instructions for assembly. Too tired to choose an outfit? Subscribe to a boxed clothing service like Trunk Club or M.M. La Fleur… These conveniences are, of course, not limited to young adults.

Skills once viewed as universal basics become hobbies you can pick and choose: grocery shopping, once viewed as a banal task, becomes an “experience” at stores designed to mimic farmers markets… The resulting uncertainty over which skills and knowledge are essential, which are optional, and which are obsolete triggers angst in olds and youngs alike. If you don’t know what counts as independence — or, worse, know but cannot achieve it — do you ever really grow up?

This is the anxiety that powers “adulting,” the much-maligned neologism for performing tasks that seem grown-up — doing laundry, changing tires, fixing leaky faucets, mounting flat-screen TVs. But the fact that these tasks fall under a special umbrella of adult-like behavior sort of proves how optional they have become.

A generation raised to view every moment through the lens of productivity will naturally apply that perspective to workplace project-management skills. Time-is-money calculations and “hustle culture” diminish the incentive — and thus, perhaps, ability — to perform analog tasks like going to the post office and cooking dinner, as opposed to farming them out. And the same hyperspecialization people use to move forward in their workplaces also transfers to their home lives. In other words: As children, millennials acted like career-minded adults. And as adults, we seem like helpless children.

If adulthood is about assuming control, then using your phone as a remote control would seem to advance the enterprise... Many people I spoke to admitted to ordering cheap socks and underwear instead of doing their laundry. More than one person confessed to buying multiples of items they suspected were buried somewhere in their homes but were too tired to find.

So what are the new markers of adulthood, as “adulting” skills become optional or downright eccentric? When home- and car-ownership drop, and stigma against childlessness wanes? When I asked my peers, the answers suggested a variety of values…  But the most persistent themes were work- and money-related: Having a “real career.” Earning enough to abandon your roommates, afford travel, pay off student loans, or avoid credit-card debt, often in the name of feeling free. Adulthood, to them, was as much about self-sufficiency as self-direction.

4. A few more stops on the #Seculosity train if you’ll indulge me. First, “gobsmacked” is not too strong a word to describe my reaction this morning upon discovering Oliver Burkeman’s wonderful op-ed about the book in The Guardian. Longtime readers will know the high esteem in which we hold Burkeman’s work. Notice how he not only summarized the content but applied it to himself #cuprunnethover:

At the heart of this secular religiosity, or seculosity for short, is “performancism”: the idea that who we are is defined by what we do. It follows that enoughness, if we are to achieve it, must come from reaching some level of accomplishment, and Zahl’s book is a compelling tour of all the ways we try. We work long hours, not just to make enough money, but to justify our existence. We scour parenting books for the “correct” approach to childrearing, as if raising the perfect adult might redeem us. We invest existential value in eating right (or “clean”, a strikingly moralistic word).

And we pursue politics, and culture wars, with a blatantly religious zeal. I’m not the first, or even the thousandth, to observe that Trumpism, Corbynism, Brexitism and parts of the social justice movement all bear the hallmarks of religion – or “cults”, as people say to be rude. The challenge posed by Zahl’s book is to wonder where I might be doing the same.

The problem is that seculosity doesn’t work. Enoughness never comes. It’s one thing to seek salvation in God, or to stop seeking salvation; but the attempt to engineer your own salvation is doomed to fail. We’re flawed and finite, so we lack the capacity to work, parent or romance our way to perfection. Try to do so and you’ll only end up struggling to exert ever more control over your life – whereas deep relationships, and other meaningful experiences, require giving up control.

Churchy types are as prone to seculosity as anyone else, Zahl points out. But “capital-R religion”, at its best, is suffused by forgiveness and what Christians call grace: the sense that enoughness is bestowed, not achieved, and that you needn’t reach any particular standard of performance or virtue in order to qualify.

On the interview front, I was super privileged to go on the Rooted Podcast earlier this week to discuss how the themes of the book relate to young adults and youth ministry. Which I think they do, big time. Kudos to my delightful conversation partner, Rebecca Lankford! And Blake Flattley was bold enough to drive down to Virginia for our discussion on the Communion Arts podcast. I was particularly psyched that he asked some questions about process, which seldom happens. Such a cool ministry and one that every worship leader should know.

5. Elsewhere, The Living Church posted a flattering, rigorous review of Seculosity courtesy of The Rev. Matthew Boulter. What an honor it is to be taken seriously. I was very touched by his words about our conferences. A few favorite paragraphs:

Whether it’s the “parenting-industrial complex” that stokes the guilt-consciousness of new parents while commodifying their needed salvific therapies (chapter three), the virtue-signaling involved in opting out of — or at least limiting the encroachment of  — our omnipresent smart devices (chapter four), or the post-McDonald’s penance performed (at the gym) to expiate for that fast-food iniquity (chapter seven), our religiosity lurks everywhere and saturates our every moment.

Just as it is the nature of beer yeast to emit carbon dioxide, it is the nature of the human heart to strive, then fail to meet, the demands of the law (religious or secular, vertical or horizontal). So we then either despair or pretend. (As the “spiritualized version of the New Yorker cartoon of the man holding his companion’s hand,” quoted in chapter nine, has it: “I can’t promise I’ll change, but I promise I’ll pretend to change.”) Finally, depending on your skill at religious charades, you can use the law as a badge of your moral superiority over others.

After chapter eight, however, the structure of the argument shifts. In chapter nine, Zahl rightly rehearses the way in which “Jesusland” is the exact inversion of seculosity. In both right-leaning evangelical circles as well as left-leaning mainline churches, the fixation on transformation all too easily becomes a law that condemns. Jesusland, in other words, denotes Christian communities characterized by a performancism sanctioned by religious trappings. If organic-only foodies or the well-toned evangelists of CrossFit use their ethical codes to self-justify on a horizontal plane (within the immanent frame), then one-sided churches of the left and the right end up importing this same post-religious system back into the church.

6. In humor, favorite thing this week might be Derek Sweatman’s ingenious “Friendseagram.” The Onion killed me with its headline “Complete Psychopath Meets Proper Screen Time, Sleep, Exercise Guidelines”. But what probably made me laugh hardest is this video of a senior citizen stealing some daredevil’s thunder:

7. Lastly, over in the NY Times, Nellie Bowes reports on “the luxurification of human engagement,” which surfaces the increasing cultural premium on, well, incarnation:

As more screens appear in the lives of the poor, screens are disappearing from the lives of the rich… In Silicon Valley, time on screens is increasingly seen as unhealthy. Here, the popular elementary school is the local Waldorf School, which promises a back-to-nature, nearly screen-free education… So as wealthy kids are growing up with less screen time, poor kids are growing up with more. How comfortable someone is with human engagement could become a new class marker.

It goes on from there, more or less how you’d expect. What I didn’t expect, though, was the opening story, which seems like a fitting note to close on:

Bill Langlois has a new best friend. She is a cat named Sox. She lives on a tablet, and she makes him so happy that when he talks about her arrival in his life, he begins to cry. All day long, Sox and Mr. Langlois, who is 68 and lives in a low-income senior housing complex in Lowell, Mass., chat… With his wife out of the house most of the time, he has grown lonely… Sox talks to him about his favorite team, the Red Sox, after which she is named. She plays his favorite songs and shows him pictures from his wedding. And because she has a video feed of him in his recliner, she chastises him when she catches him drinking soda instead of water.

Mr. Langlois knows that Sox is artifice, that she comes from a start-up called Care.Coach. He knows she is operated by workers around the world who are watching, listening and typing out her responses, which sound slow and robotic. But her consistent voice in his life has returned him to his faith. “I found something so reliable and someone so caring, and it’s allowed me to go into my deep soul and remember how caring the Lord was,” Mr. Langlois said. “She’s brought my life back to life.”

Strays

  • For those in need of direction for their prayer lives as we head into Holy Week, I highly commend Alan Jacobs’ reflection “Lord Make Me An Idiot.”
  • Music-wise, in between episodes of the awesome new Chuck D-narrated Clash podcast on Spotify, I’ve been digging on Good Saint Nathaneal, whose record Hide No Truth is out now. Watch the video at bottom for a sample. Highly recommended.
  • Bowie pulp covers are the work of Todd Alcott.
  • The Seculosity Tour rolls on! Next week I’ll be in Tulsa on Monday (4/15), Oklahoma City on Tuesday (4/16), and Dallas on Wednesday. For more details click here. Note that Tuesday is a ticketed event and we’d love RSVPs for Dallas.
  • Our own Carrie Willard was featured this week on the Crackers and Grape Juice podcast, talking about church, grace, and familial estrangement. It’s a run-don’t-walk episode. Oh and I’ve gotten a preview of the talk Carrie will be giving in NYC in a couple weeks, and let’s just say we’re in for a treat.
  • Speaking of NYC, the talk titles are up on the schedule page and I couldn’t be more pumped. BUT we’re running very low on meal tickets (menus are up too!), so if you are hoping/planning to eat with us in NYC, please pre-register ASAP. Oh and we’ve got some clergy and seminarians traveling from far away in need of financial assistance (and we’ve already exhausted our scholarship fund). If you’re willing to sponsor, please email us post-haste at info@mbird.com.
  • Finally, the talks from our Tyler conference should be up on The Talkingbird feed by Monday! Click here to be sure you don’t miss out. And speaking of Tyler, the reflection that Fred Smith of The Gathering posted this week about that event and work of Mockingbird more generally brought tears to the eye.