I'm certain most United Methodist pastors in Indiana have, at one time or another, been asked to pray with a parishioner over the phone. Sometimes these phone calls find us in early morning or in the sudden shock of loneliness or fear that the aged may experience. Sometimes the call comes in before an unannounced surgery, when family members call us at the last minute to "pray up" a loved one before the anesthesia is applied. And then, there are always those calls that come on a cell phone, usually when we are driving to another meeting or are in the throes of counseling a couple with marital problems.
No doubt, the proliferation of cell phones and other technology has made all of us more readily accessible. That's not necessarily a bad thing. But there also are some destructive and socially-disadvantaged elements to being "got" at any hour of the day or night, 365 days a year. Even a cursory reading of the Gospels will show Jesus himself did not play this game - and there are many instances where Jesus refused to meet a need, refused to speak in public and otherwise blockaded himself from the unrelenting needs of the world.
Actually, I enjoy praying with people over the phone. I do it quite often - and sometimes I call people just to let them know I'm thinking about them or I am aware of a particular need. But increasingly I also find myself turning off my cell phone, or going off-line, or even taking a long walk or a kayaking excursion, so that I can actually pray for myself or refresh my own depleted energy. Taking life off-line from time to time gives me the ability to exercise, meditate or even work on my sermon without interruption.
Like you, I have witnessed my share of instances where people seemed enslaved to their own accessibility. During the high moments of a Bible study I was teaching, one woman took a phone call without leaving the room, and talked loudly with a friend about their social plans for that evening. At an important congregational meeting, a fellow booted his laptop and began working on a company PowerPoint presentation. During youth meetings, I am amazed at how many teens text-message constantly with friends, even during study, reflection and prayer. No, I'm not a Luddite (an opponent of technological progress), and yes, I am aware of generational differences.
I mention these things, not because I am beyond guilt or because I eschew technology, but because I think we have something to teach the world about prayer, reflection, solitude and the meaning of connection with God and others. Some of these connections have nothing to do with accessibility, but with the ability to listen and to find God in the stillness or our own inactivity.
I'm not throwing away my cell phone, my Internet or my Blue Ray DVD just yet, but I'm still waiting for one phone call from a voice that says, "I just called to say 'I love you.'"*
Todd Outcalt serves as senior pastor of Calvary United Methodist Church in Brownsburg.
*with apologies to Stevie Wonder