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Reading as a listening exercise

I was asked recently what I read for inspiration and information. I had to admit to this person that my reading, especially during this stressful pandemic year, has been mostly “fluff” — novels that don’t require a lot of thought from me. Rather, I’ve enjoyed the experience of getting absorbed by a good story, but not one with much conflict or real-world parallels (no dystopian futures for me right now). I read book reviews of more substantial novels and nonfiction, and I think, “That book would be good to read.” But then fatigue and distress come knocking at my heart’s door, and I just can’t muster up the energy to pick up those books. When I disappear into a book right now, I look for a story that helps me forget.

And yet, I know I need to remember. We have so many potential lessons to learn from this global pandemic. It is not good to completely shut myself off from the world, especially as a pastor. How do I make my sermons and pastoral care relevant if I’m not tuned in to the realities of people’s lives? And nothing is more relevant to people’s lives right now than COVID-19, our nation’s racial reckoning and its partisan division.

What helps me stay engaged in these real-world matters are real-world stories. And I find it easier to engage in these real-world stories when I’m listening to them. I would rather consume informative and inspirational content through my ears, in shorter bursts, by listening to podcasts. I’m a junkie of Public Radio podcasts (NPR & PRX), some more serious and some just for fun. I trust that the information I get from these podcasts has been thoroughly fact checked and attempts to be nonpartisan. I love that I can listen to these podcasts while driving or doing chores around the house. It makes these boring activities more bearable (and is a good motivator for doing things like washing dishes).

And yet, it can be just as overwhelming to absorb podcast information as reading information in a book. The market is saturated with podcasts of every stripe: culture, news, humor, theological reflection, history (to name just a few of the topics that intrigue me). I genuinely cannot keep up with the content that interests me. And so, just as I have a library full of books I haven’t read, I have a podcast app filled with podcasts to which I have not listened. I go through periods where I don’t want to listen to anything particularly serious, and it can be easy to ignore the content that would stretch me and help me grow. During times of extreme stress, we as pastors need to balance fun content that gives us a break from reality and content that delves deeply into reality as it is. Whether we balance this content by reading with our eyes or listening with our ears, the discipline is necessary.