Photo by reza shayestehpour on Unsplash
In January I preached a sermon on patience and talked about a restaurant Alex and I go to on special occasions. It’s the kind of place where they bring you a palate cleanser between courses (so by “special occasions” I mean “when someone gives us a gift card”). It is not the sort of place you go when you’re in any kind of hurry. But what is most remarkable to me about it isn’t the food or the service (both of which are excellent). It’s that in the small set of hours I’ve spent in this place, I’ve never once seen someone on their phone.
Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe it’s a restaurant policy I’m unaware of. Maybe we’ve just dined in particularly detached company. But I am convinced this is an extraordinary dynamic, because I’ve never been asked as many questions after a sermon as I was that day: that many people wanted to know the name of the restaurant.
A study from Pew Research Center shows 77% of Americans have a smartphone. And if that seems low to you, consider in 2011 that number was only 35%. Today 92% of 18-29-year-old Americans have one.
I can pull data on how much time the average American spends on their phones, but the more telling result is usually to ask the people you love how much time you spend on it.
Having a smartphone can feel like having everything. Or at least it should. Those of us in our mid-30’s have a unique appreciation for this phenomenon; Anna Garvey calls us The Oregon Trail Generation, as we’ve
died of dysentery forded the rivers of our lives from an analog childhood to a digital adulthood.
I got a cell phone when I got a driver’s license. We got the internet in our home when I was a sophomore in high school via the dulcet tones of a 56k modem. And, had I not flunked out of college multiple times, I wouldn’t have had initial access to Facebook when it launched for college students in 2004.
All three of these things are of daily – some would say vital – importance in our lives now. But my generation grew up as they did. And sharing our formative years with the digital age produces a greater appreciation for what exactly we’re now carrying in our pockets.
What can’t we know? Wikipedia isn’t perfect, but it might be the best starting point in human history. If you’re confused by the Oregon Trail reference, they have 1,500 words to get you started. From there you’re one click away from learning even more about any of the game’s 20 real-life landmarks, or the Apple II computer we all played it on in elementary school libraries, or a list of 149 other educational video games, or anything.
What can’t we hear? Unless you’re a huge Peter Gabriel fan, the answer is virtually nothing. Subscriptions to Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, and the like put a massive percentage of all recorded music at our fingertips. What can’t we watch? When I was a kid, going to our small South Knoxville video rental store was more or less going on a treasure hunt. Now not only can I stream almost anything on my phone, I can press a button and speak into my remote control, and in seconds it’s on my television screen. No one tells me I can’t watch it because the Thompsons down the street checked it out first.
We carry the world in our pockets. Even if some of us use it mainly to take pictures of ourselves.
I think about my phone, and then I think about my grandfather. He’s 92 years old and just moved to Knoxville to live with my parents after my grandmother passed away in October. Before then they lived on a farm in West Tennessee, which her declining health really confined them to for the last 15 years. But even before then, time stopped on that farm; they didn’t have a landline phone until this millennium.
My grandfather does not have a smartphone. And I’m not sure he’s very impressed when I try to show him how much I am. You know the soundtrack to Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary you loved? Here it is! When the conversation turns to our beloved Boston Celtics and he remembers how play-by-play announcer Johnny Most used to hate on the Detroit Pistons, I can reproduce that moment! And I anticipate him watching it and asking, “Good grief, what else can this magic box do?!” But he just laughs, and goes back to his day.
It’s not that he can’t learn new tricks. Last week Alex and I took an afternoon and drove him all over Knoxville, stopping by places like Neyland Stadium he hadn’t seen in 30+ years. On our way down Kingston Pike my wife needed to make a quick stop, and I looked across the street and saw the hot light on. I asked him if he’d ever had a doughnut fresh off the line from Krispy Kreme.
He was far more impressed with that than my smartphone.
Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, like yeast. Small, yes. But also slow.
The kingdom is not like modern technology. Answers do not come in two swipes. It does not bend to our whims, and it does not adhere to our schedule. In our world fast is better than slow at almost every turn. In the kingdom of heaven, slow is the only way.
Slow, and hidden. That mustard seed will grow, but imperceptibly. Yeast disappears into the dough, but it will rise. The kingdom is not a microwave. But it does invite us to put our hands in: as Rachel Held Evans beautifully writes, “The stories of Jesus make more sense to folks with a little dirt and flour beneath their fingernails, folks who are patient.”
Slow, and steady. The kingdom makes us patient.
Patience is not about whether you can wait. Everyone has to wait, even if it’s only two seconds for a page on my phone to load. Patience is about whether you can wait well. And when those two seconds become three, we often leave the kingdom behind.
Patience is presence. It’s the kind of truth we’re confronted with at restaurants like those: if I’m going to make this kind of investment, I don’t want to miss any of it. It’s like it’s become that you have to pay hundreds of dollars to pay attention.
And so of all these attributes, it is the way the kingdom makes us be present that is most valuable.
It’s there. Working its way through the dough of our lives, stretching beneath the soil. It calls for faith to believe, even when we can’t see it. And it cannot and will not be rushed. You can only be here.
In this way, with all I know and all the more my phone can tell me, faster than ever before…I’ve still got a lot to learn from my grandfather.
The kingdom of heaven is at hand. It cannot be hurried, but it is always present. And it invites us to be the same.
My wife and I told my grandfather we’d be back to take him on another drive again soon. “Next time,” he said, “two donuts.”