Last week, a friend of mine unplugged herself from her cell phone, in spite of the fact that she is a “connector” who enjoys being called. Somehow it had become clear to her that it was the week to stop answering the phone; to stop hearing the stories she had heard again and again. Instead, she tuned into the people who were around her–like her preteen daughter who, thankful for her mother’s presence, curled up next to her to read her science book for school.
We unplug that we might be more fully present to those who are near. Yet I don’t believe technology to be the root of our distraction. Those who’ve been with me for awhile know that people who lived in the mid 600s BC—the contemporaries of Jeremiah–surely were distracted, even though they couldn’t conceive of the world wide web.
In looking for the root of our distraction, I found The Practice of Encountering Others, a chapter in Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor’s newest book An Altar in the World, helpful. She tells how the monks of the 4th century who ran to the desert when Christianity became the religion of Rome spent a lot of time alone. Still they would come together to celebrate communion, to share a meal, and to share stories. Taylor points out that they understood that as much as they needed God, they needed one another. Even when they lived in the silent distant wilderness away from all the distractions of the city, the biggest temptation remained.
Explaining why they would come together, Reverend Taylor writes, “At the very least, most of us need someone to tell our stories to. At a deeper level, most of us need someone to help us forget ourselves, a little or a lot. The great wisdom traditions of the world all recognize that the main impediment to living a life of meaning is being self-absorbed.”
Whether we are plugged in or unplugged, answering calls or lounging in silence, alone or with another, the challenge remains to get over ourselves that we might hear the voice of another: a child, a friend, or even God.
Many years ago, I was sharing tea with a wise elderly woman I had met at church. She was strong and independent, having, as a child, traveled to California on a covered wagon (I hasten to remind my own daughter that I was born in California, but I digress). We were talking about the most recent Thanksgiving. She shared that one of her sons reacted with strong emotion to some of the family story-telling. He was frustrated about being remembered for some dumb thing he did when he was a child. It was a story that was often shared. She grinned puckishly and remarked, “I turned to him and said don’t you think it is time you got over that?”
Her bluntness, shaped by her generation, gets at a truth. He was still reacting to the criticism and embarrassment he felt when he was a small boy. While that boy remains part of him, he is so much more than that.
I’m reminded of one of my favorite Sunday School stories from 1 Samuel, chapter 3. Scripture tells how the young Samuel heard his name called in the middle of the night when all was quiet. Samuel assumed it was the voice of his teacher, Eli, with whom he had been all his life. He ran to Eli, woke him, and said, “here I am.” Eli told him to go back to bed; he hadn’t called. This happened again, and the third time Samuel awakened Eli, it finally occurred to Eli that if he was to get any sleep, he had to give the boy appropriate directions. He told him, when the voice called again, he was to say, “Here I am, your servant is listening.” Samuel did as he was instructed, and instead of running to the one who always told him what to do, who he was, and what he was to become, he listened to the voice of God.
It is always tempting to go back into the familiar patterns of our past, to seek guidance where we once found it, whether in the role we’ve been in for 20 years like my friend, in the power of our own mind as did the monks, or from a parent/mentor whose approval we still seek. The selves of our past seduce us into our own arms.
Verity A. Jones, writing about the power of social networks, reminds us: “We are created by God to be in relationships, in networks of people and ideas of all kinds.” She goes on to suggest “we should consider the prospect that exposure to networks of people and ideas that educate, encourage, correct, influence, shape, and depend upon us is an essential element of what it means to be fully human…” (Reflections, Living Theologically in a Networked World).
As we enter into the season of shared meals and celebrations, it seems appropriate to remember that it can be a sacred act to enter into conversations with people. If we learn to listen well, we can move beyond our self made sanctuaries to experience more of God. Our arms, those that would wrap us up in a pose of self protection, can learn to instead reach upward in a posture of thanksgiving and trust. We can awake from the slumber of our own limited dreams and learn from Eli to say, “Speak, O Lord, for your servant is listening.”