Lenten Reading: Sermon on the Mount #5

The Sermon on the Mount hit home in a practical and difficult way for me today.

I’ve been struck lately by how distracted I am by my iPhone. The iPhone is a fantastic invention, remarkable really, and a boon in the hands of some folks. But, for me, the iPhone plays right into my natural impatience (instant access to Google and email), my desire for distraction (Words with Friends), and the ever-present temptation to isolate myself from my community–including my friends and family. I’ve noticed that lately it has been getting harder for me to concentrate on my reading and writing. I even fight the urge not to check my messages or email when I’m driving. It feels like my smartphone is making me dumber. And here is the biggest thing: I’ve noticed that my wife and five year-old daughter sometimes have to fight for my attention.

All this came to a head this weekend when three things converged:

1. My wife, with whom I’d been discussing all these matters, sent me a blog post called “How to Miss a Childhood.”

2. My wife, daughter, and I took a technology sabbath. Here’s how I signed-off of Facebook on Saturday morning:

As soon as I get home from this coffee shop, Kate, Molly, and I are taking a 24-hour sabbath of rest and delight, unplugging from the technology that isolates us from one another, in favor of things we can do together in the physical world. We’re trading in the iPhones and iMacs for the wePlay, weWalk, and weRead. Screenless Saturday starts…now.

Over just 24 hours I felt myself decompress in remarkable ways. I wrote by hand again. I read a novel. I thought about poetry. I talked less and I listened more. I felt less herky-jerky. When we had to go grocery shopping, we went together. When we had to do chores, we did them together. We went for a walk in town and ran into friends. We fell asleep in the living room. We played board games after dinner. I played basketball with a few kids (including Molly) in the church gym. Things happened that I wanted to broadcast to the world on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, but instead I kept them to myself and by so doing caught a glimpse of what it meant that Mary, the mother of Jesus, “treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).  People with iPhones can do these things, too, but since I got my iPhone two years ago I haven’t been doing them enough.

3. I read the Sermon on the Mount again. A couple passages stood out in particular. The first was the passage about logs and specks and brothers and eyes. As distracted as I can be by my smartphone, it’s never gotten to the point where if I am sitting across the table from my five year-old daughter at a coffee shop, I will spend all my time on the phone and not engage with her. I see dads and moms doing that all the time with their kids and it makes me sad. I want to say to them, “Look at the miracle sitting across the table. They are waiting for you.” But the SOTM reminded me that I can’t say that yet. As this long post makes clear, I’ve had a pretty big log in my eye. I have to be the change I wish to see.

The second SOTM passage that came to mind was the one about cutting off your right hand if it causes you to sin (Matthew 5:29-30). Are distraction and lack of self-control sins? I don’t know. But I do know that patience and self-control are two fruits of the spirit that I haven’t embodied well for a while.

All this is to say that today I went into an AT&T store and traded in my iPhone for a basic phone.

“We don’t get many people going backwards,” the sales associate said with smile. We laughed, but I also tried to explain that I was being confronted with a choice: (a) instant access to texts, games, email, and the store of all human knowledge, or (b) the more important things in my life–including family, community, writing and reading, nature.

I’m not saying everyone needs to get rid of their smartphones. Far from it. But it was something I needed to do to make it just a little easier to be good.

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