Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
-John 20:21-23 (NIV)
My family leaves for a vacation soon, and this year we’re really getting away from everything. Where we’re going, cell phone coverage will be intermittent, at best. Wi-fi will be pretty much inaccessible. While I’m certainly not as dependent upon technology as a lot of people, I do consider myself pretty connected. I’m pretty comfortable with technology, and, like a lot of people, have integrated it pretty completely into my life. I sync my calendar across a couple of computers and my phone. I’m currently collaborating with several other people on a document stored in the cloud. I post to a blog every week, podcast sermons, and run an online fantasy football league. As I typed that last sentence, my phone chimed to tell me I have an email.
And that’s all well and good, I suppose. But I have a feeling that, on our vacation, I’m going to re-discover the joy of not being connected. Or, rather, of connecting with the people who are there with me, right in front of me, instead of people I can’t see.
The results of a survey by the Pew Internet and American Life project reveal that 13 percent of Americans have used a fake cell phone conversation to avoid engaging someone face to face. Among adults ages 18-29, the number jumps to 30 percent. And anecdotal evidence suggests to me that a far larger number of people are interrupting and even ending face to face interaction in order to take real phone calls and even respond to text messages and e-mail. (Or maybe that’s just people who are face to face with me....)
In any case, I think it’s safe to say that all our instant connectedness with anyone, anywhere in the world isn’t doing much for our connectedness with people who are right here, right now. Ironic, isn’t it? We’ve never been more potentially connected, and yet loneliness and lack of community is as much a problem for people now as it’s ever been. Maybe more so. Many of us can work from our homes entirely, freeing us up to spend more time with family and friends. But many of us find that instead we spend more hours working. And without building the workplace relationships that were common a decade or two ago.
When Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, his first call to his assistant was, “Come here, Watson. I need you.” Now, we use our phones and other technology to send the opposite message.
I don’t think, though, that for most of us the solution is to cut our wires and turn off our wireless connections. Like every technology, what we have today has its legitimate uses. While our connectedness can be used to shut us off from others, or even to exploit others for our own pleasure or profit, it can also be used by exploited people to shake off tyranny. It can communicate life-saving information across vast distances in the blink of an eye. It can connect missionaries to their supporters and relief organizations to their sources of funds and material. It can be used to communicate the gospel instantly to more people at one time than Paul or Jesus preached to in their lifetimes. Whatever challenges technology may pose, they almost certainly aren’t inherent in the technology itself. They come, like all human frailty, from the uses to which we put it.
Jesus was unambiguous; he told his first followers that their mission statement was the same as his. In the power of the Holy Spirit, he sent them just as his Father had sent him to announce the forgiveness of sins. Our model for connectedness, then, is Jesus. This should be no surprise, though I suspect we forget it often enough and fail even more often to adequately grapple with the implications.
Jesus refused to keep people at arm's length, even when those people wanted him dead and had the power to make it happen. In maybe his best-known reflection on Jesus, Paul reminds us that Jesus prized connection with human beings above even his equality with God. He let go of that glory, and the one through whom everything was created was himself “made in human likeness.” He took the nature of a servant, Paul says, and made himself nothing - emptied himself, literally - to the point of dying on a cross. “Your attitude should be the same,” Paul tells us. Jesus’ death is not just the means of our salvation, but the model for our relationships.
So what does that have to do with technology? A couple of things, I think. First, if we’re using technology to keep the people around us at arm’s length, then we haven’t gotten that from Jesus. Sometimes our incessant phone calls, texts, and emails can be a convenient camouflage for our reluctance to really engage with people and be involved in their lives. If at any time we find ourselves preferring screens to other human faces, then we really need to ask ourselves some hard questions. Jesus engaged with people even when it killed him. That was his mission, and so it’s ours. As his disciples, we shouldn’t be reluctant to connect with the people whose paths he sends us across.
But, maybe an even larger point to consider is that no technology human beings have, can, or will create will ever ensure that people will be connected. No wifi or 4G network will accomplish what the power of the Holy Spirit will do in catapulting us out of our self-involved, self-interested, self-contained little worlds and into the worlds of the people around us. Through his Spirit, Jesus will give us the strength and courage to connect with others, even when it costs us something. Even when it forces us to let go of the other things we value.
I’m not telling you to turn off your phone or unplug your cables or turn off your wireless connection - necessarily. I’m just telling you to look at the neighborhood in which you live, the office in which you work, the school in which you learn, the church in which you worship, and take note of all the people. People who need love and forgiveness and strength and help and prayer. Take note of the One who emptied himself for people like that, and for me and for you, too.
And follow in his footsteps.