NO PHONE

I have been having some medical issues and therefore have to go for lots of medical appointments. Since most of the people I need to see are specialists who live and work at least 100 kms away, that means a lot of driving. So, my last appointment with one place was scheduled early in the morning, which meant I had to get up and leave early, which messed up my normally relaxed morning routine.

Rather than a leisurely breakfast while checking news headlines and glancing at email, followed by some initial work before getting dressed, I had to be up, have breakfast, dressed and out of the house in a half an hour. I can do that—I have done it lots of times. But the reality of the rushing is that I sometimes forget stuff. Once, on such a rushed morning departure, I forgot my wallet. Since then, I specifically check that I have my wallet.

So, wallet firmly in hand (or pocket, rather), I hobbled to the car and headed out. Fifteen minutes down the road, I realized that while I had my wallet, I didn’t have my phone. I contemplated turning around but the travel calculation didn’t work: fifteen minutes back, five minutes to find the phone, fifteen minutes back to this exact spot would make me late for the appointment. So, I kept going—after all, I had made this trip countless times before cell phones and should be able to make it today.

Except, well, if I was going there for the appointment, there was some shopping that needed to be done—and the shopping list was on the phone. So were the directions to the place where the appointment was, although since I had been there before, I wasn’t worried about that. I was concerned about the roadwork along the way—if I got stopped for too long, I couldn’t really let them know I would be a bit late.

I fretted and fussed about the lack of a phone for most of the trip—actually, I didn’t completely relax until I got home and retrieved the phone. Even though I remembered everything on the shopping list, found the place, didn’t have to call about being late and there were no missed calls or texts while I was away, I wasn’t completely comfortable making the trip without my phone.

I am not really sure what to think about that. As I mentioned, the trip I was making was a common and familiar one for me—one that I had probably made more times without a phone than with one—and many of those trips were made in cars that were a lot less reliable than my current Jeep. For years, grocery and todo lists resided in my pocket on their own piece of paper, not on my phone. For many years, being in the car on a trip was a perfectly understandable and valid excuse for missing a phone call.

But once I got a cell phone, it simply felt wrong to be out of contact. Even more, it felt uncomfortable making even a familiar trip without the phone. I have become so habituated to the phone that I even keep a charging cable in the car, just for those rare moments when the phone needs a charge while I am on the road. I specifically looked for a car with Bluetooth capability so I could safely use the phone in the car.

Like many people, I have become dependent on technology and am very uncomfortable without it. I love the ability to call from anywhere, to look up a Bible verse anytime, to write notes, take pictures, check email all from one tiny piece of equipment. I even have a back up of my sermon on the phone when I preach in case the primary tech, my tablet, has problems during worship.

I really don’t know if that is a good thing or a bad thing—it just is. I am pretty sure that when people first started experimenting with writing, someone complained that people would not be able to remember stuff any more—but the people who caught on to the writing would likely just make sure that they remembered the (clay) tablet with their grocery list on it.

Now when I leave in a rush, I check my wallet pocket and my phone pocket. Technology has changed me but as long as I remember the wallet and phone, I don’t have a big problem with that.

May the peace of God be with you.

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GROWING PAINS

One of our church fund raising activities is a yard sale. This provides a time for people to get rid of stuff too good to trash but not good enough to keep, as well as replace it with a lot of other stuff that they probably don’t need and will probably donate to next year’s sale. Anyway, one of the items at the sale was an 8-track player and some 8-track tapes. Most of us there remembered 8-tracks, which had an active and flourishing life of 2.5 weeks.

Well, they actually lasted a bit longer than that but not much. Because I am a techie, I got thinking about the changes I have experienced just in that area: I began buying vinyl LPs and 45s, moved on to cassettes (I skipped 8-tracks completely), then switched to CDs and now, I have downloaded music on my phone which I can play through Bluetooth in the car. I like technology and so I kind of like the changes and new inventions and like to keep up—but it means that I have spent a lot of money over the years just to have music to listen to. Mind you, most of the time, I am more interested in the technology than the music.

The last 100 years or so have involved almost incredible technological change. Before the beginning of the 20th century, technology was basically static, with few significant changes. Gunpowder did introduce some changes but essentially, people lived, worked, made war and died pretty much the same for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. But then, the 20th century changed everything. Life changed in dramatic and drastic ways because of the advances in technology. For me, the iconic picture of the change is an East African herder walking behind his sheep as has been done for hundreds of years but talking on his cell phone.

Not only are we inventing new technology but we are having to invent new rules of conduct to take technology into account. What is the polite thing to do when I am having coffee with a friend and my phone rings? Do I ignore it completely; check to see how important the incoming call is; apologize and answer at the table; apologize and leave the table to answer or simply answer and ignore my friend? Is it polite to carry on a private conversation on the phone while in a public place?

Can I take videos and pictures where ever and whenever I want and do whatever I want with them? When film camera technology was introduced, the general rule of thumb became that you could take pictures of people in public places and publish them because they were taken in a public setting. But the technology of film and publishing were relatively expensive and so most people never got their picture taken for generic publication. Today, however, technology assures us that we will all be able to get our 15 minutes of fame, whether we want it or not and whether we know it or now.

And while our culture is struggling with all this and more, I also struggle with technology and its implications from the perspective of my faith. Some questions are easy—I am not going to answer my phone during a worship service. In fact, I even try to remember to turn the sound off. I am not going to turn the phone off because the backup copy of my sermon is on it and my tablet has been showing signs of age lately.

But what happens when the person I am visiting gets upset with the fact that the Bible I am reading from happens to be on my phone? That has actually happened—not everyone shares my love of technology. Some find it scary and intimidating and reading the Bible from a phone is a bit much for them. Since I no longer carry a printed Bible, I generally ask if they have one I can read from, which seems to be an acceptable solution.

Technology is a real blessing—but the blessing hasn’t been totally integrated into either our culture or faith yet. It might seem like it has been completely integrated but the truth is that for all the technological advances and toys, we are still in the process of figuring out how everything fits together. I love the tech toys and what it allows me to do, but I think we need to spend some more time figuring out how it all fits into life.

May the peace of God be with you.

GIVE ME A GOOD BOOK

I have always been a reader. I discovered books early on life and began reading them as early as possible. There were some rough early years when books were hard to come by—we didn’t have much money and the town we lived in didn’t have a library. Books came to us through the same route as clothes and most other things: a few gifts, a lot of hand-me-downs and the occasionally purchase. I remember that a lot of the money I earned splitting and piling wood for neighbours or picking and selling blueberries ended up being spent of books. A significant part of my first steady income ( a newspaper route) also went towards books.

At one point, I was suffering from frequent headaches, which was automatically attributed to my reading too much. That, and the fact that I preferred reading to actually doing chores meant that there were times when my reading was on a timer—I could only read a certain amount a day. That was a powerful stimulus to change the behaviour that lead to the restriction.

I have enough understanding of people to know that not everyone shares my love of reading. Very early in my life, I realized that for some people, reading was a chore, something they did only when they had to and then only if someone was actually watching them. I discovered that many people would rather read a commercially available summary of books we had to read for school—the summaries were shorter and pre-digested. Given my love of reading, I probably read the assigned book and then read the summary also—reading is reading, right?

These days, I do most of my reading via an electronic platform. If there is a debate over the merits of paper versus electronic books, I am firmly and completely on the electronic side. When I have to sit at the car dealer for a couple of hours while my car is serviced, my ereader is a vital necessity. The hundreds of books I can carry that way mean that I will never run out of reading. And if the battery runs down, well, I still have access to the books through my phone, tablet and computer. As an added benefit, moving electronic books involves far fewer boxes and much less muscle power than print books.

There is something about a well written book that goes well beyond the actual words. Reading at its best involves my whole being and even all my senses. I read and the reading draws me into the material. Whether it is fiction or non-fiction, I can enter the world of the writer and live in the material. I can get to know not just the topic but also the author. I become a part of their world and they become a part of mine. I read—but at the same time, I see, I feel, I understand, I grow—I become different because of having spent time with Stephen Hawking, Tom Clancy, Martin Noth, Isaac Asimov, Jurgen Moltmann—the list goes on and on and will continue to go on and on. I fully expect that on my deathbed, the doctor will have to move a book of some sort to listen to my fading heartbeat—and me being me, the book will probably be describing the process I am going through or be something totally and completely unconnected to anything.

Because I am a Christian and a pastor, a good part of my reading involves books about faith and ministry. And no matter what else I am reading, I am reading the Bible. I have read through the Bible more times than I can count in more translations and versions than I can count. And that isn’t an exaggeration or literary conceit. A few years ago, in an effort to make life simpler before moving to Kenya for work, I got rid of most of my print library, including most of my collection of print Bibles. I literally can’t count them because I don’t have them. That, by the way, is another reason why I love ebooks—I never have to lose my books that way again.

By the way, there is no moral, no hidden purpose, no hidden meaning in this post. I may be a preacher but this isn’t a preacherly attempt to hide the meaning in an extended story. I just love reading and wanted to write about that today.

May the peace of God be with you.

ON THE OTHER HAND…

As I mentioned (or confessed) in the previous post, I have a deep and strong connection with my electronic devices. Keyboards and screens and processors and memories are a basic and significant part of my life—a day that involves my not looking at some type of screen at some point would be possible but it would likely involve a total wilderness experience or a coma. On second thought, I would most likely have my camera on the total wilderness experience so maybe only a coma would keep me from my electronics—I probably wouldn’t be paying attention to the medical device screens I was hooked up to.

So, in many ways, I am a typical member of the electronic age—plugged in, carrying a backup power supply, using the car connectors to charge equipment and rarely without at least one electronic device with me. But there is one line that I have yet to cross and given my personality, may not cross.

I first became aware of the line after the wide spread adoption of smart phones. It became more and more common to see people seated together at a restaurant absorbed in conversations—with their smart phones, not each other. I discovered that more and more conversations with people were being put on hold as the other person answered their phone or read and responded to a text. As a teacher, I found myself having to make and enforce anti-phone call rules in class, a decidedly unpopular move for many students.

It seems that many people have shifted their relationship priorities. Anyone on an electronic connection automatically becomes more important than a real, live, physically present human being. This is, I think, a real problem. It is likely also a sign of a huge shift in human relationships that likely isn’t going to go in a good direction.

My uneducated guess is that the shift began innocently enough. Cell phones began as an expensive novelty—and all of us like to show off our expensive novelties. Answering a ringing cell phone was a way of letting people know that you had one—and those of us who like technology weren’t all that upset because we wanted to see the cell phone anyway. But at some point, some people began to prioritize electronic communication over face to face communication.

I think one of the underlying factors is the reality that face to face communication can be tricky. When we are with people physically, we can never really tell or control what will happen—personal communication can be messy, what with all the feelings and potential mis-understandings and non-verbals and all that other stuff. Electronic communication, even with video is clean, crisp and more than a little impersonal.

We can separate ourselves more from the person and all the stuff that goes along with really relating to people in a full face to face communication. With electronics, we either can’t see or can ignore non-verbals. We have some real distance, not just physically but also psychologically. No matter how clear the picture on the screen and how high quality the sound, communicating with my grandchildren electronically just isn’t the same as holding them on my lap while we get silly together.

I am afraid that we as a culture are using electronics to distance ourselves from each other. We want the semblance of communication and relationship without the demands and potential messiness of real face to face communication. That goes against a lot of what I believe.

Even the fact that I am a confirmed introvert doesn’t lessen my concern over the distancing effect of electronic communication. I believe that we were created as social beings and best relate to each other when as many barriers as possible are removed. I believe that Jesus’ command to love each other as he loved us require that we do more than text and spend screen time with each other. To really communicate, we need to be present so that we can hear and see and, according to some studies, even smell each other because all those means of communication are essential to the process.

So, let me make a suggestion. Use some screen time to send a message to someone inviting them to have a real face to face conversation.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE ELECTRONIC AGE

When I was growing up, our phone was a big, heavy, black wall mounted unit that connected us to the world via a party line. We kids could use the phone, if we had a good reason and if it wasn’t long distance and if no one else on the line needed the phone. There wasn’t any problem knowing if someone else wanted the line—they picked up their phone and told us they needed the line. Our needs as kids were obviously less important than their adult needs.

We had a phone, a radio and a TV—and that was really the extent of our electronics. But I was aware early on that there were fascinating things coming: computers, for example, were starting to make inroads on life beyond research centres and secret government activities. I read about possible applications of computers and wished that I could somehow see a real, working computer, something I actually got to do during my senior year in high school when we were taken on a class trip to the nearby university and see their computer which filled a room bigger than our school classroom.

I really appreciated seeing that computer—but never really anticipated that I would sit in my living room with a laptop computer of my own with more computing power than those early computer developers likely dreamed of, a computer which allowed me to write and research and work and play and communicate. And when my laptop is too big and bulky, I have a tablet. And when even that tablet is too cumbersome, I have my phone. There is also my ereader, which might be a bit of overkill but it does keep a lot of books in one place and because I only use it for reading, the battery lasts forever. The computer, tablet and phone will all take pictures but I am fussy when it comes to pictures and so also have a nice digital camera which also has more computing power than the computers used to support the moon landings.

I also own a couple of pens—well, I actually own a lot of pens but only two of them are worth keeping track of. One was given to me by a friend about 30 years ago and the other was given to me by my mother when I assisted at her wedding to my step-father. Both pens have special places and get used occasionally—but the truth is that for me, pens are mostly for show because most of what I write, from sermons to shopping lists gets written on some sort of electronic device.

Although I spend a great deal of time with people talking and listening, I also spend a lot of time connecting with people via text, Sype, and email. In my more honest moments, I confess that my introverted self prefers text and email, although there are lots of times when face to face unplugged is great—but if what needs to be communicated can be effectively communicated via a keyboard, I am right there.

What would happen if all my electronics suddenly stopped working at the same time? That is a nightmare scenario I don’t even want to think about. When my laptop died recently, I was stressed until I got the replacement up and working, even though I had a perfectly good but somewhat obsolete backup to work with. I fret about the decreasing battery life on my tablet. My ancient ereader won’t talk to my new laptop. My phone is over three years old and who knows how much longer it will last.

I might not have been born in the electronic age—but I have certainly made myself at home in it. Even my Bible is electronic. I have paper Bibles and am actually using one now for my personal devotional reading—but that is only because I don’t have a new translation on any of my electronic devices to read. Most of my Bible work is done with the benefit of multiple, fully searchable translations on some piece of electronics—the only one that doesn’t have multiple Bibles on it is my camera.

For me, there is no problem here. As long as hard drives work, batteries produce power and chargers do their thing, I am going to enjoy my electronics. I will keep and appreciate my two special pens but the ink in their refills may dry out before I use it up.

May the peace of God be with you.