I was asked to briefly share the story of my selling back my smartphone, especially as the decision connected to my prayer life, at the most recent clergy retreat of the Diocese of Milwaukee. The first half of this post, after the preface, also appears here, where it was originally published. The second half of this post will also appear in a future post, as a proper stand-alone sequel to the first. This entry puts it all in one place, with the introductory preface, which I hope adds context for the talk.
I have been asked to talk about prayer. And my smartphone. Spoiler: I don’t have a smartphone. Because it was disrupting my prayer and my ability to be present to God and those around me. So where others (at this retreat) have been asked to talk about running or cycling presumably because they are good at running or cycling, I have been asked to make a public confession. It doesn’t seem fair, but here we are. And I’m glad to share my story. In fact, I’m honored to be asked. But even my confession comes with a confession, because – get this – my initial reflection on selling back my smartphone got picked up by the Slow Church blog curated by John Pattison and Christopher Smith and went as viral as pastoral confessions about mobile devices are ever likely to go. My attempt to disconnect connected, which is strange, and feels like a kind of failure. A little bit like reading Wendell Berry’s famous letter about not having a computer via twitter. Ah well.
I thought I’d start by simply sharing that first reflection, the blog post I wrote upon selling the phone. We’ll take a break, and then I’ll share the six month later update.
But first we should pray. Because talking about rhythms of prayer isn’t the same as entering them. Let us pray.
Lord, it is fitting to rejoice in your beauty and to gaze upon your handiwork. While others may call this a waste of time, we recognize that unless we sit in adoration of you, we will forget whom we serve and for what purpose. Remind us why worship is always our first response to you. Amen.(1)
Part I: Why I Sold Back My Smartphone (& Why I Blame David Fitch), the blog post I wrote last July:
Last week, I walked into my local Verizon store and said I’d like to upgrade my phone. “Sure,” he said. “What do you have?” An iPhone 5s. “Great. And what do you want?” A basic phone, I explained. The cheapest you have. The sales guy gladly steered me toward the basic phones, but then something like this went down, when he tried to sell me a $150 basic phone:
To his credit, the sales guy subsequently backed off and happily sold me a $50 flip phone. “It’s got no wifi,” he shrugged.
Before I go on, a couple of notes:
1) I am not brave or courageous for selling back my iPhone. What I was was addicted to a piece of technology that suggested itself as the way to make every aspect of my life easier and more efficient, even if I – or it – didn’t know yet how it could do that. Because, you know, “there’s (always) an app for that.” Did you know there is even an app for monitoring your iPhone use, ostensibly so that you can pare said use back to reasonable levels? Yeah, that went about as well as you’d expect. Unsurprisingly, it turns out the mere presence of a smartphone in a room is enough to inspire distraction. Many times, at lunch with a friend, if said friend got up to use the restroom, the phone instantly came out. Because it never really left. I was not in control.
2) I am not prescribing my action for others, and I don’t judge smartphone users. Plenty of people I know manage to use their phones without using them to fill in the cracks of spare time between everything else. I was not one of them. One day last week I woke up and imagined myself continuing to fill in the beautiful cracks of between-things spare time with a must-be-productive-in-every-moment sense of iPhone urgency, combined with the device’s lackluster record of coming through on the productivity promise, lived out over the next fifty years, and I had something like a panic attack. I had a clear sense of wanting another life for myself.
3) I am very, very aware of the insane amount of privilege involved in the decision. First, I had an iPhone to sell. Then, I developed (thank God) the audacity to resent a device many people could never afford. And I could sell it. And I could purchase some of the capabilities I’d be losing without an iPhone, like a guitar tuner, to compensate for what I’d be missing. And yet, as I have come to understand privilege, the goal is not to deny or “take off” privilege (as if one could!), but to leverage what privilege one has for others. Surely, leveraging privilege for others requires being present to others, and I believe I am better able to make that space without the phone. That said, I take seriously critiques of how I used my privilege in this discernment.
Relatedly, part of the discernment around the trade-in involved an app by app inventory for how I could change my phone habits without thoughtlessly shifting the burden of my decision to others. For example, surrendering my bank management app might have made me feel lighter at Rebekah’s expense, if I had seen selling the phone as disconnecting from all of the responsibilities I had previously invested in the phone. One of those responsibilities is to stay connected to the news of the world around me and to stay active. I fully intend to keep a social media presence. Just not at the expense of a physical presence to my physical neighbors.
4) My new phone stinks. I regret nothing, and it stinks. I won’t glamorize T9 texting. It took me five minutes the other day to confirm a lunch date with a colleague: “Okay. See you then!” Auto-replies are my friend. But I made the switch so that I would talk more and text less. To that end, it works and it’s great.
My new phone’s name is Fitch. I named it after David Fitch, whose recent book Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines that Shape the Church for Mission has come like balm to my soul at a needed time. To grossly generalize, the book introduces a) the disciplines of sacramental practice to evangelicals, on the one hand, and b) a robust theology of submission to the lordship of Jesus in sacramental/liturgical traditions like mine, on the other. Even if that characterization is not exactly right, the space of intersection Fitch explores between historically evangelical and liturgical emphases is rich and full of life.
I named the phone Fitch because I want to remember, on those days when not having Google Maps makes me late to a meeting, why I made this decision. To be faithfully present to God’s presence.
Christians are called to make space. To live with. To proclaim. To be present.
Surely, selling back a smartphone doesn’t make a person present. But it’s a start. Admittedly, it’s a start I hope gets better. I’m improving, but I confess I spent my first couple of days without a smartphone instinctively reaching for its ghost. Still, it is a start, and one I hope will both a) ask more of me over time and b) prepare me to be up for the ask. I want to make space, to live with, to proclaim, to be present. All with God’s help.
I was sitting in a book group with David Fitch and Rebekah at last week’s Gathering of the Ekklesia Project. We were just about to start. Suddenly, Fitch’s smartphone went off. Startled, he turned it off and threw it down, with some visible (theatrical) disgust. “So much for presence,” he said.
Questions for reflection:
Where/when does being present come most easily to you?
Where/when is it most difficult for you to be present?
What patterns of presence do you notice in yourself?
Where is your desire to be present at odds with the reality?
Where has an investment in presence opened up new life for you?
Why I Sold Back My Smartphone: an Update
Part II: Selling the Smartphone: A 6 Month Update
It has now been about six months since I sold back my smartphone. Six months later, I no longer have phantom pains; I no longer reach for a device that isn’t there. (Not that phantom pains were unreasonable to expect: the average smartphone user checks her phone 80 times a day, or 30,000 times a year. I can’t think of anything beyond breathing to which I had been so regularly committed.) Now, it is not uncommon for me to lose track of my phone for days at a time, to have no idea where it is, so worthless is its utility.
Six months later, I have discovered growing edges and necessary next steps, like leaving the laptop at work so that I do not simply replace addiction to one device with addiction to a larger one. Rebekah and I even had a blasphemous conversation the other day about the possibility of discontinuing the internet at home, altogether. Stay tuned. As it turns out, leaving the laptop at work is also a good first step toward leaving one’s work at work. Who knew? I remember telling a colleague at lunch one day how I had unexpectedly discovered that I cared as much or more about my progress learning the guitar as I did about my community’s flourishing. It felt scandalous. My colleague kindly reminded me that, for creatures made to glorify God and enjoy God forever, the true scandal is that prioritizing lives of holy enjoyment would feel like a scandal. And then he confessed the same scandal in his life.
My friend and I are not, of course, alone. In his classic Leisure: the Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper reflects at length about how our world thinks about work. “In his well-known study on capitalism, Max Weber quotes the saying, that ‘one does not work to live; one lives to work,’ which nowadays no one has much difficulty in understanding: it expresses the current opinion. We even have some difficulty in grasping that it reverses the order of things and stands them on their head.” Sometimes I distract myself from work. Most times, I distract myself into work. From my life and the lives of those around me. In his wonderful book Silence and Honey Cakes, Rowan Williams calls such distractions from what really is the life of fantasy for which regular prayer and long silences are good medicine.
Since selling back my smartphone, I have discovered the peace of waiting for someone who is late with folded hands and without anxiety. I am learning that I do not need to forgive myself for not trading my presence for more potential productivity – what could have been, or should have been – a hard lesson learned in a vocation in which nothing is ever finished and I imagine that I could have always done more. I am reading more books. I am writing letters to friends, with fountain pens and beautiful inks. I am discovering practices that help me grow my ability to receive the gift God, in a given moment, is giving, rather than seeking to control my environment for the gift I wish I had been given instead. I am making more room for possibilities I do not script or predict.
Where I used to go around filling my days with, well, filler, and then wondering where the time went, I now find myself with the opposite dilemma: more than enough time, such that I find it increasingly imperative to spend more time each day in God’s presence, calling to mind the values I pray will animate me: Joy, Listening, Generosity, Trust, and Prayer.
Josef Pieper again writes that
The inmost significance of the exaggerated value which is set upon hard work appears to be this: man seems to mistrust everything that is effortless; he can only enjoy, with a good conscience, what he has acquired with toil and trouble; he refuses to have anything as a gift.
St. Thomas named the same struggle more simply and positively: “The essence of virtue consists in the good rather than in the difficult.”
Rhythms of prayer dispose me to receive the giftedness of life and the Christ whom my baptismal covenant would remind me is there, in each one, to be sought and served. To not know, therefore, to be open, to embrace the uncertainty, is an important part of allowing the present to be God’s gift.
I need God’s help to remember that I am ever walking in God’s sight. Prayer is good help. Hymns are helpful, too; prayers I can sing to my children and that they can sing back to me! What a gift. The rhythm of daily prayer, for me, is like the breaks that are built into the really good roller coasters. Up and down a hill, maybe two or three of them, and then the click, click, click, because it is relatively easy, all things considered, to go off the rails, get caught up in the speed of things, even to become disoriented and forget what the thing was about in the first place. So about the time I want to put it all on my back or, alternatively, pat myself on the back, click, click, click. Sit with the scripture. Click, click, click. Soak in the story. Click, click, click. Sit in the silence. Rest in the presence. Call to mind the things God has shown me about God’s love and its depths. Be surprised one more time by God at work in this world and the corresponding truth that it isn’t all up to me. Remember that Karl Barth called laughter the closest thing to the grace of God. Click, click, click. Receive all these things as gifts. Go back to the work, foolish enough to believe the work can be offered as prayer, sure of the fact I will forget how to pray, blessed by the truth that the rhythm of prayer will find me at about the time I forget: “Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit…” Just when things threaten to go too fast, my head get too big, my heart grow too anxious, it will find me. Click, click, click. And I’ll return to the grace that it is my privilege to proclaim.
Relieved of the burden of being salvation to the world I return to, with any luck, I will have been opened again to receive the strange, unexpected gifts it is, in God’s ocean-deep love, God’s joy to give.
From my favorite hymn. 469, not 470. Give it up for Calvin Hampton:
For the love of God is broader than the measure of the mind.
And the heart of the eternal is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more faithful, we should take him at his word
and our lives would be thanksgiving, for the goodness of the Lord.