Back in the 1980s, I worked in the financial world and had my first introduction to cell phones, or “bag phones” as they were sometimes called. The men I worked for could call me at my desk as they left their house and do 45 minutes of work before they even got to the office. And then in 1989, I become a stay-at-home mom. I left the world of finance and cell phones and took up the joys of motherhood. In those days, my phones were either attached to the wall or were pulled behind my daughter. (Do you remember the one where the eyes moved up and down as you dragged the thing around on wheels?)
Children’s toys aside, I have two very vivid cell phone memories I think are instructive for us during this time of stay-at-home orders and social distancing.
In 1999, I proposed an international “field trip” to England with our nine-year-old, home-schooled daughter. One of the most poignant memories of the trip was eating dinner at a restaurant and observing a couple at the next table. There they were - just the two of them. Two people; two dinners; two cell phones. For the entire meal, they both spoke only to someone else on their phones. I was amazed at the sight!
Fast forward to the second memory, almost ten years later. A February storm in 2010 dumped over two feet of snow in Pittsburgh. For some reason, my husband and I decided to go to Applebee’s for dinner. As we headed out, our side view mirrors scraped the piles of snow along the road, but the restaurant was in the neighborhood! The shock that evening was watching a family sitting at a table nearby. There they were - just the four of them. Four people; four dinners; two children sitting playing games on cell phones. I was amazed at the sight!
Such things don’t amaze me anymore. Restaurants, family gatherings, even church – all common places where people gather together, only to spend their time with someone else, somewhere else. Whoever they are, and wherever they are, they must be awfully important. Because in the moment, you are not present with the people you are with. And if those people in your life are like me, they wonder why. If you don’t intend to interact with people, why bother going?
And so, here we are in 2020. Twenty years have passed since my trip to London. And it’s been a decade since that dinner at Applebee’s. Like most of you, I’m hunkered down at home. No trips to foreign countries; no dinner out. Ah, but we still have our cell phones. Funny. Now a great deal of time is spent talking about how thankful we are that we can still connect with others using our phones.
Students are completing the school year online. Parents are working from home. Church is livestreamed to your living room. And the voices from the culture all praise us for being “together at home.” We gather to watch concerts from the living rooms of the stars. The NFL draft from the commissioner’s basement was a success after all. And, Secretariat, dead for more than 30 years, wins a virtual Kentucky Derby. Food and supplies are delivered to your door. Why, it seems like we hardly even need each other. All brought to you by the very technology that just a few months ago often separated us from one another. It’s just that back then, we were physically together, and maybe we didn’t notice it as much.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m thankful for my laptop and cell phone which allow me to continue my work at home. It’s great to join my Bible study every week and see everyone’s faces, even if it looks like a modern day Brady Bunch or Hollywood Squares game show.
And yet, this is the very technology that we have sometimes allowed to stand in the way of being together. We have been alone in those moments when the people standing next to us chose to be more present with others on their phones. Back then it was by choice; now it’s by stay-at-home orders.
What will change for you when you can leave your house again? Will you embrace the people you love and realize what you had been missing when you were with them before? Or will you return to your former practice of being present, yet absent?
I pray that we will all realize that despite being thankful for technology, something has been missing. You and me. Friends and family. Together.
The Apostle John gives us a great reminder in his third epistle:
I have much to write you, but I do not want to do so with pen and ink. I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face. Peace to you. The friends here send their greetings. Greet the friends there by name (vv. 13-14).
So, I ask you, “What’s that in your hand?”