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A few months ago I was standing just inside the doors at Target, waiting to meet up with Emily after our shopping was done. As I waited near the doors, one of the only open checkout lanes had a line seven customers deep. Every customer in the line was buried in their smartphone. The first party of three seemed to be family–all on their individual smartphones. Moving on back in the line, another individual was texting away. Another couple stood side by side, not speaking to one another, but presumably speaking to someone more interesting, somewhere else. Emily and I left before the line cleared, but I wondered: would anyone look up to learn the cashier’s name?
Americans are notoriously impatient people, a flaw within our national character that becomes particularly evident in December when grocery and retail stores witness a flurry of holiday spending. We think waiting is beneath us, a nuisance that surely can be avoided in this technological age. There’s gotta be an app for that. And there is. Not just one app, but hundreds of them. If you’re ten people deep in a line, smartphones can save you from a few moments of waiting. You can disappear into the digital world of Steve Jobs’ creation and resume control of your environment. Really, no one will notice you are there. You can be Everywhere else except the place where you stand. But at what cost?
The Smartphone Escape has become a habitual impulse ingrained in me, too. Like other impulses that become regular habits, I didn’t examine the effect of my ordinary routines on other people. Stepping out to the grocery store on a Sunday evening to stock up on a few more items before the week begins, I’m not worried if five people stand between me and the cash register. I can check my updated Fantasy Football matchup from the ten minutes of stat changes that I missed since I left the house. I can endure any wait these days with my Smartphone Savior. But do I know a single employee name of the stores I frequent? Am I moved with compassion when I see a harried mother who is worn out corralling her kids in a store? Do I notice the weariness in employees who bag my groceries? Not if my head is always down.
Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.
There is a penitential character to the Advent season that calls for our repentance as we wait for the Lord and look for his coming. The Scriptures speak in the prophets and the psalms, “lift up your eyes.” How ironic that we would dissipate the Advent season by keeping our heads down to avoid waiting in any form. Repentance doesn’t always mean ‘turning around’; sometimes it simply requires us to look up.
But embracing repentance and the discipline of patience isn’t easy. The nature of waiting assumes that we are not in control. The allure of technology tempts us to enter a world where we are always in control. But technology isn’t the problem. When a newspaper editor sent out a call for essays addressing the question, “what’s wrong with the world?” G.K. Chesterton famously responded: “I am.” Technology isn’t a sinner. We are sinners. And the courageous believer who faithfully journeys through Advent will be unafraid to utter this confession: Lord, have mercy upon me, a sinner who spurns waiting because I must be in control.
It’s not sinful to have a smartphone, nor is it wrong to check your smartphone in public. But Paul’s words seem important here: “All things are lawful for me, but I will not be dominated by anything” (1 Corinthians 6.12b). When it becomes second nature for me to flip out the smartphone in every moment of waiting, always preferring my digital world to the real world and real people around me, well, that may a sign that our technology is no longer a servant, but something that is mastering our fidgety minds. Our phones may be smart, but they can’t teach us wisdom.
And there’s a cost within our inner lives when we reject waiting, too. By rejecting waiting and pursuing control, we experience more anxiety, not less. Adam was at rest before he sought control of the world God created. His anxiety began when he tried to control his own universe. Waiting is grounded in faith and trust. Waiting is inherently relational: while I stand still seemingly “doing nothing,” I am given the opportunity to bring a prayerful or hospitable spirit into any given place.
St. Thomas Aquinas notoriously said that Advent is concerned with the three comings of Christ: the coming of Christ in his nativity, the coming of Christ to the human heart, and the coming of Christ at the end of the age. The truth of the Advent story is that Christ is not only coming to us, but we have been sent to “become his coming” to the world. The ministry of John the Baptist is not ended; the Church is now the Voice that prepares the way of the Lord.
But it’s hard to lift up our Voice if our eyes aren’t lifted up to make eye contact with the person in front of us. The seduction of Somewhere Else and Someone Else is particularly enticing to the American mind, especially when we’re standing still and nothing seems to be happening of interest to us. But life isn’t about being interested all the time. If anything, watchfulness is the virtue we are called to honor this season.
If we renounce our distractions and temptations of impatience this season, we might see cashiers, bag boys, waiters, retail clerks, and delivery workers for who they are: persons made in the glorious image of God. “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal,” C.S. Lewis said. There is nothing glorious emanating from our backlit screens. The eternal weight of glory was reserved for men and women made in the image of God.
And in the season when we anticipate the celebration of the Word made Flesh, we would do well to recognize that the Incarnation of the Son of God dignified every human being beyond our imagining. For when the Word became flesh, angels weren’t seen in the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem, but among working class shepherds, ignored and exiled from the people. With their heads bowed down in monotonous toil, shepherds were startled by a light from heaven that shone in their eyes. The beam of Heaven’s mercy always shines light into the eyes of the humble, weary, and worn down of the world. Their dignity, unnoticed in the eyes of men, transfigured them into courtiers of Heaven’s King. No wonder they rejoiced and recognized his coming. He is the Light and Life of all mankind.