We live in tumultuous if not perilous times. So many folks say so, it must be true. Most days I take this in stride but the time for action may have come. Just this week I received an email with prayer requests from a nearby church congregation. As I read and prayed for that list, I was stopped cold mid-prayer by the sentence “Pray for our slow mail service.” D-a-a-ng, I thought. The USPS has done it now! Somebody is upset enough to talk to the big G about their job performance. It’s not quite like getting sent to the principal’s office, but it’s close! I can appreciate the sentiment, but what did we expect? Bob Dylan warned us years ago that “these times they are a changing.” It was just a matter of time before change overtook the USPS. It stands to reason that if delivery isn’t as fast as it used to be, it is easier for change to overtake it.
“Neither rain nor snow nor sleet or hail – nothing stops the US Mail.” That is the postal service I’ve come to expect. Honestly, the statement promises consistency or reliability, not speed. Still, the phrase sets a tall standard. It, or some similar variation, was impressed upon me early in life. Granted, we didn’t recite it daily in elementary school like we did the Pledge of Allegiance, but this unofficial motto was something we counted on. In rural North Carolina during a pre-Google world, postal delivery kept us connected to the outside world. It delivered things like the Sears and Roebuck catalog, which could double as a high chair for a small child as well as provide a menu into a world of “things” we never knew we needed until we saw them laid out in that catalog. Thanks to the USPS, they could be sent directly to our box. I don’t know how reliable it was back when Ben Franklin served as the first post master general, but in my childhood, true to the motto, except for Sunday and federal holidays the postal carrier delivered every day to Rt. 1, Box 151 (usually by noon) no matter the weather.
You may be shocked to learn that this catchy saying isn’t really the official motto of the USPS after all. It isn’t even original to them. As it turns out, an architect with a preference for classical things borrowed a phrase from the Greek historian, Herodatus, who said something similar to these words when admiring Persian couriers during the war between the Greeks and Persians in about 500 B.C.E. So, there is no real obligation for the post office to live up to that claim except for the fact that most of the country is certain that it should. We all know how frustrating it can be to have someone else try to define who we are or how we should be. If you’re like me, the more others insist, the more I resist unless I think it was my idea in the first place. Even though we hate to be treated in such a fashion, that probably won’t stop us from expecting the P. O. to live up to this high standard or grumbling about it when it doesn’t occur.
Actually, I have a lot of respect for the postal service. It amazes that a few numbers scribbled on an envelope –even in my chicken scratch handwriting — can find their way across country to the intended, precise, small little box – all for the price of 58 cents. Granted, one stamp only cost 4 cents when I was born. Adjusted for inflation that amounts to 36 cents. That’s a 64% increase adjusted over 60+ years, which seems fair enough. Still, it was tempting not to load up on forever stamps back when they were introduced in 2007 at 41 cents in anticipation of future price hikes. Between saving 17 cents per item now, and the profit I could make re-selling them to family and friends for, say, 55 cents now, I could partially fund a pretty pathetic retirement plan. Even at the current price, the cost of a stamp is a pretty incredible deal when you think of all that a piece of mail endures to move from point to point. But few of us will readily admit that because if a nearly free postal service isn’t part of the Constitution, it was surely an oversight.
If I am honest there are days when the mail carriers on our route annoy me. I know it’s unreasonable to expect perfection but I still cling to a few modest standards. For instance, how often should we find someone else’s mail in our box? It has been a good excuse to meet a few neighbors along our road but it leaves me to wonder how often my mail winds up elsewhere – and does it ever make its way back to me? I don’t mind if I’m missing another unsolicited offer from DirectTV or the DISH, or the local State Farm agent who refuses to take us off her purchased mailing list. But what if it is important, like a notification from Publishers Clearinghouse or someone else announcing a windfall profit? It’s one thing to force me to wait a few extra days for my mail, but if the USPS is responsible for denying me undeserved riches, then that is another story!
We often walk to our mailbox to add a few extra steps to our daily exercise. It’s .6 of a mile round trip, long enough to increase our cardio or even hold hands and pretend it is a cheap romantic outing. Recently as we went along this route after a rainy day, we came upon a brown envelope that looked like trash. Fortunately, we picked it up instead of kicking it aside. It was unopened mail addressed to me, now thoroughly soaked by the day’s deluge. It included an honorarium and a thoughtful, handwritten thank you note for a recent workshop I’d led. How long had it been on the ground in our driveway? How did it get there, a good 100 yards away from its intended destination? I’ll never know the answer.
I thought perhaps Judi or I dropped it while walking back to the house, no doubt while we were swept up in the romance of it all. But a few weeks later I found another envelope on the ground on the roadside about six feet from our mailbox. It was not addressed to us at all, but rather to a neighbor who lives about ½ mile up the road. Maybe I should start a delivery service for lost and found mail?
Add to those experiences things like the days when our mail is delivered but the carrier fails to take the outgoing mail. What part of “red flag up” is confusing? Okay, it was just a Netflix video, but still—they are interfering with the orderly flow of business here! Heck. Slowness of delivery is just the beginning of the complaint. The original prayer request may need some revision and expansion.
Along the lines of the prophet Habakkuk, I feel the urge to offer a sad paraphrase of his oracle:
How long, LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen,
Or cry out to you “slow mail” and you do not save?
Why do you make me wait for the Wall Street Journal,
While my bills always arrive on time? . . .
I suppose the world of mail delivery can’t be easy. I’ve read the USPS had an operating loss of nearly $5 billion in 2021. Between e-mail, fax, and even text messages, much of the cream has been skimmed off this milk. What is left, at least at my house, is a mountain of unnecessary items like travel catalogues, seed catalogs, and magazines we never ordered but can’t seem to terminate. I hear there is good money in junk mail, so it won’t be eliminated anytime soon. When we add the business side of the conversation to the picture, mail delivery it gets more complicated.
So, there we have it. Expectations built around memories of the past or unintentional stereotypes. Changing times with regard to the fastest, least expensive way to correspond. Financial realities facing a staid piece of American culture as it tries to survive while satisfying its customers. Significant dissatisfaction from a public who remembers a more idyllic time in the world of postal delivery. Put that in an envelope and mail it anywhere around the world and most of us will recognize the similarity with something we’ve ourselves have dealt. It makes me appreciate the fact that the mail comes at all.
Perhaps the irony of it all is that there are some parallels between prayer and the post office. Both are in the message delivery business. If you think the post office is slow, there are days when prayer can’t boast a better delivery time. How long have we prayed for peace? For reconciliation with a loved one? For recovery from particular illnesses? Most of us have known some excruciatingly slow delivery times.
There is a refreshingly honest line in a song that I hope is true: “God may not come when you call him, but he’s always on time.” With that hope in mind, I’m going to pray for the post office, their employees, and especially those of us prone to impatience while we wait. It may not make a noticeable difference, but it is one contribution I can make. Meanwhile, I’ll keep patrolling my driveway and roadside. Who knows what I’ll find next?