If you die during supper, I apologize, but I will be unable to take your call.
A few months ago, Professor Sherry Turkle came to Decatur as the speaker for the 2016 Writers Conference at Calhoun Community College. A professor at MIT who is known for her TED Talk and several books on how technology is shaping our relationships with each other, Professor Turkle did more than encourage her audience to put their phones away; she warned us that technology was destroying our ability to be intimate with one another. Although her presentation was not in any way religious, I heard profound implications for my relationships within the Christian community and for my relationship with God.
When I attend a forum like that one, I hope to take away one good piece of learning----some profound insight that will shape my life in response. On that night, I heard at least three. First, Professor Turkle explained that experimental data have shown that couples who leave their cell phones off and upside-down on the table where they are eating have shorter and measurably less intimate conversations with each other. Even when turned off, that device has the power to restrict my dialogue with the people I love. Second, Professor Turkle cited studies of workplace environments where employees reported a greater sense of collaboration and effectiveness when unstructured, device-free gatherings were encouraged. In other words, when we limit our use of e-mail, text messages, and phone calls in order to facilitate casual, non-directed conversation, we work better together. Third, Professor Turkle concluded her remarks by addressing a would-be objector who would willingly accept that devices interfere with interpersonal relationships but who would question the value of turning off that device when he or she is all alone. "When I am by myself, doesn't my cell phone help me stay connected with others?" one might ask. No, she replied, it does not----at least not in a lasting way. In order to be intimate with others, Turkle argued, we must first be intimate with ourselves. Until we can handle being alone, we cannot really know what it means to be in a real, mutual, intimate relationship with another.
I was floored. I walked back to my car, eager to call Elizabeth and tell her what I had heard but unwilling to pull out my cell phone to make that phone call until hidden from view. According to Professor Turkle's criteria, I have a problem with intimacy. If I am behind the wheel for more than three minutes, I yearn to dial my spouse or mother or father or sibling or anyone who will keep me company during the drive. In that way, I have confused connection for relationship. I mistake instantaneous and pervasive reachability for deep and lasting availability. I realized that I have defined success in my job as a priest as always being ready to answer the phone when a parishioner calls instead of always looking for ways to develop loving and caring relationships with them. Those might be similar, and a willingness to receive and make some calls does foster those deep relationships, but always having my phone by my side is not the same thing as being available as a priest.
On Sunday, we will read Matthew1:18-25 and hear the story of an angel appearing to Joseph in a dream. Two weeks ago, in our service of Lessons and Carols, we read Luke 1:26-38, in which the Angel Gabriel appears to Mary to tell her that she will bear God's son. In both cases, God revealed his purpose by speaking to those who were available to him----one asleep but open to God's inspiration and the other a virgin who had found favor with God. By saying yes, both of them displayed the kind of deep faith that stems from a deep and intimate relationship with God.
If technology has made it difficult for us to really listen to what our loved ones are saying to us, how have they affected our availability to God? If we cannot be silent and solitary and relish time all by ourselves, how will we ever hear God's still, small voice whispered faintly on a gentle breeze? How will we nurture our confidence in God's abiding presence in our lives if we constantly fill our lives with other things to stave off those dreaded moments of aloneness----of oneness with God?
Since Professor Turkle's talk, we have made the kitchen table in our house a device-free zone. Not only have we stopped answering texts or phone calls when they come in during a meal, but we have begun putting our phones away----in a drawer, out of sight, where we cannot even hear them. After the Writers' Conference, I recognized that there was only one moment each week when my phone was not in my pocket or beside my bed----when I am leading worship. Foolishly, I have assumed that a parishioner or someone else I care for might need to reach me at any other time. But, if I have unintentionally defined my relationship with others by the possibility of a ten-minute phone call, in so doing, have I not necessarily undermined the possibility of a thirty-minute chat over coffee or an hour-long conversation over a meal? Likewise, if I restrict my availability to God to those prescribed moments of worship each week, should I be surprised if I never hear God speaking to me at other times?
What about you? How are you closing off the voice of others and the voice of God by making yourself exceedingly available to a phone call or a text message or an e-mail?
For the rest of this Advent season, I invite you to observe regular moments of technological silence. At meals, while you are driving in your car, for the first hour of your day, for thirty minutes every afternoon, or when you walk in the door in the evening, unplug. Turn off the television. Power down your computer. Place your phone in a drawer. Make yourself deeply available to the people you love. Make yourself silently available to your own inner voice. In so doing, make yourself available to God. Listen without any distraction to what is being said to you. Share the unencumbered, undiluted, uninterrupted words of your heart. Between now and Christmas and beyond, wait and watch for the coming of Christ as Mary did and as Joseph did----as those who tune the whole world out in order to hear what is right in front of them.