THE PHONE CALL

I am part of the cell phone revolution—we don’t have a landline in our home. That has several implications, one of which is that my name no longer appears in a phone book. As a pastor, that means in order for people to contact me, I have to be very liberal passing our my business cards, as well as making sure that my number is published every week in the church bulletin. I am not hard to get a hold of, at least within my ministry circle.

Recently, though, I discovered that my ministry circle is much bigger than I thought. I got a call from an acquaintance, someone we used to live near. We had a good relationship, comfortable enough to pass some time when we met but nothing deep or significant. The neighbours knew I was a pastor—they may even have showed up at a funeral or two I conducted. I knew that like many people they didn’t have any real church connection. When we moved to another house, we didn’t see each other all that much but when we did, we would pass some time and move on.

The phone call, though, was an overt request for pastoral care. A death is imminent and the caller wanted me to be involved in the process. He explained how he got my number, mentioning a third person whose name I didn’t actually recognize at first gave him the number. When I finally remembered who the other person was, I realized that my connection was through another funeral for a family member—and I may have given him a card. Like the caller, this person has no real church connection other than a familial connection. But even after a year or more, he had retained my card and number and was quite happy to pass it along to his friend who needed some help.

It isn’t that there are no other clergy around. The person who passed on the phone number has a tentative connection with a church that has a pastor. The caller likely knows another clergy person personally since they are close to the same age and grew up in the same area. All the church in our town have landlines and therefore are listed in the phone book.

But the caller wanted to connect with me. It suggests to me that on some deep level, I am his pastor. I doubt if he would define the relationship that way but essentially, that is the reality. He needs a pastor—he finds my number so that he can talk to his pastor. The fact that he has never been in a worship service in any church I have pastored aside from a funeral isn’t an issue. He needs a pastor and I am his pastor.

My pastoral ministry extends well beyond the churches I serve. And it is based on a whole lot more than the activities I get paid to engage in. I am his pastor likely because of the nature of the relationship we had when we were neighbours and because of some ministry I provided to another neighbour, who also didn’t and doesn’t have any other church connection.

I realized again that believers really are never off duty. My faith is part of my being and its reality is always visible. And because of that, I am always a witness. Sometimes, as in the case of this called, my witness is positive, setting the stage for a deeper ministry when it is needed. But there is the very real possibility that some of the phone calls I don’t get are a result of a negative witness that I have shown some person along the way, a negative witness that speaks not only about how my ministry has been perceived but also about how the God I claim to follow has been perceived. I might be a part-time pastor for small congregations but I am a full time witness to a very large circle of people, a circle whose boundaries I will probably never know.

Fortunately, God is aware of the boundaries of that circle and through the power of the Holy Spirit, can and does enable one person to give another person a phone number so that they can contact me—and the same Spirit will guide my ministry with the called, as long as I am willing to listen to the Spirit.

May the peace of God be with you.

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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.

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.

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.

WHERE AM I GOING?

If you are reading this on the day I posted it (September 12, 2017), we are on vacation, travelling in the province of Quebec.  We are visiting a place we have never been but which looked interesting in the information our daughter sent us as we were planning the trip.  This vacation brought a couple of different twists to the process, which of course turned on my need for plans and structure and organization.

The first twist is that on this vacation, we were going somewhere we have never been before and don’t have any contacts in the area, except for the owner of the Airbnb.  Normally, our trips to new areas have been to visit family.  The second twist is that we are driving rather than flying, meaning that we are responsible for getting there and getting around when we get there.  Travelling to a new area with no contacts and being responsible for our own transportation means that I was busy before the trip figuring out how to get there.

That isn’t a totally new process–we have done it before.  But technology has changed.  In the past, I collected up all the relevant road maps, planned and marked the routes, folded the maps open to the relevant sections and put them all in a clear plastic bag in the proper order.  I also had an overall map that gave a view of the whole trip at a glance which I could then supplement with the particular section map.  Have I mentioned before that I like to be organized and have preparations made ahead of time?

These days, road maps are available but are not as easy to get as they used to be.  Technology has replaced paper–we just type in the destination and the phone tells us where to go.  We can use Google maps to see the route, complete with all sorts of interesting suggestions about where to eat and what to see and even what pictures to take.  But I still need a real map, preferable one that I can mark on–being able to keep it in a clear plastic bag is a bonus.

So, a day or so before the trip, I was using Google maps to plan the trip and printing out maps for the trip, especially for the parts that I don’t know.  It is excessive–I have the phone and can access the travel directions at anytime and will probably drive by a travel bureau where I can get a real map.  But there is something about a real map in a clear plastic bag that makes me feel comfortable and since it is my trip in my car, I get to do what I want.

I like to know where I am going and how I am going to get there.  I am sure some of that comes from the reality that outside of vacation trips, I don’t always have a lot of sense of where I am going and how I am going to get there in my life.  There have been major portions of my life when I have had no clue about where my life was going and therefore how I was going to get there.

That has been exciting, scary, exhilarating, aggravating, fun and depressing–often all at the same time.  With no destination that I can figure out and no clear plastic bag of maps that I can dip into anytime I need to, I have been left with one resource at times.  That one resource wasn’t my phone.

It was my faith.  I may not have the world’s strongest faith but I have faith that God knows what he is doing in general and also that he knows what he is doing in my life in specific.  I am not trying to say that I approach life totally reliant on God because I keep trying to find the life equivalent of a clear plastic bag of maps.  But my faith tells me that in the end, I need to trust that God knows what he is doing in my life.  He might not tell me what is going on as soon as I want; he might not give me as clear a map as I want; he might not take me where I think I should go–but in the end, I believe he knows what is going on and that I can trust him.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE PLAN

It was a good plan, one that took into account both our needs and allowed us to get our stuff done without causing either of us to have a long wait.  Basically, we both had to see people in the regional hospital an hour or so from home but we both also had a variety of other things to do–and since there were no real tempting movies playing, it would be an there and back trip, with the obligatory stop at the big grocery story.

The plan was simple.  Before I headed to my appointment to get my hearing aids checked, I would drop my wife off at the store where she was looking for something.  Then, when my appointment was done, I would call her and we would meet for lunch in the downtown area, after which we would do our hospital visits and shopping.  Cell phones are a tremendous blessing when it comes to coordinating plans.

I actually got to see the hearing aid tech a bit early and the work they needed to do didn’t take all that long so I was back to the car within 10-15 minutes.  The first attempt to call didn’t work–but I assumed that it was just because the phone and the car Bluetooth systems hadn’t finished talking to each other to get working together.  I decided to head downtown, find a parking spot near the restaurant and try again–after all, I was early so I had time.

After the fifth failed attempt, I was beginning to think my phone wasn’t working.
After the tenth, I was positive there was a problem with the phone and was wondering if there was a phone store in the area where I could get the phone fixed or replaced.  After a few more tries, I remembered that there were still pay phones in the town and headed for them–I actually had some change with me.  After three attempts, I still wasn’t able to make a connection.

Frustrated, angry and hungry, I walked around the area, looking in all the stores I thought my wife might be in.  Eventually, she appeared–frustrated, hungry and wondering why her cell phone wasn’t working and why I hadn’t called.  Eventually, we discovered that one whole communication company infrastructure had gone down–the company we used.  We eventually got lunch, saw the people we needed to see and did our shopping.  Of course, we needed to visit the bank to get real money since the collapse took out most store credit card machines.

So, I am a preacher, which means that I need to find a moral in everything that happens–sermon illustrations are an important part of my life.  This is a good story but I need to find the right sermon to drop it into.  In fact, it is such a good story that it should probably have the prime spot in the sermon.  Since I serve two different collections of churches, I will get to use to twice, maybe with different applications.

But right now, I am not exactly sure how I will use it.  I am mostly aware of how much a relatively new technology has become such a basic part of my life.  The first phone I used was a basic black Bakelite device fastened to the wall with a battery box under it and a crank to connect with the operator who would put the call through.  Now, I have a high-tech device that will call anyone, connect to the internet, give me directions, figure out my finances, and help me hang pictures (I discovered and installed a carpenter level app).

With the old wall mounted phone, I could only connect with people if I was standing within the length of the phone cord on the handset.  With the cell phone, I can call my friend in Kenya who is so far out of the way that his friends pity him.  But of course, that only happens when the system works, which it didn’t the other day.

I am sure there is a great sermon illustration in that–but I just have to figure out how I want to use it.  I am sure it will come to me.  The fact that I have two chances helps.

But in  the meantime, the next time we make a plan that depends on the cell phone, I may also include a backup plan.

May the peace of God be with you.