Creating Sabbath in a Digital Age

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Digital connectivity shrinks the world. Once, a few years ago, I left a hospital visit in Richmond, VA, and began making phone calls and following up on several voice mails. One message related to a mission trip. Before returning the call, I called a friend and fellow pastor in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, found the answer to the question in the message, and returned the call. On another occasion, my phone chirped at the arrival of an important email while I was out sailing. Responding in a timely fashion meant I could keep sailing and be present to the person who sent the email. The walls of my office fall. My accessibility extends to the car, a trail, waiting rooms, grocery stores, my home… almost anywhere.
Smart phones, tablets, widespread 4G and LTE coverage, and the ubiquity of Wi-Fi make connecting easy, if not unavoidable. Social media can be a wonderful way to keep up with friends, family, colleagues, and congregants, but it is ever-present, sort of like a digital Holy Spirit. The push notifications are always there. Facebook chimes in: a friend tagged me in a post. Instagram beeps to notify me of my friends’ latest pictures. Someone sends a tweet, so Twitter chirps. And, of course, there are texts, IMs, emails, and chats.
After Jesus heard about the death of John the Baptist, he tried to get away. “He slipped away by boat to an out-of-the-way place by himself. But unsuccessfully—someone saw him and the word got around. Soon a lot of people from the nearby villages walked around the lake to where he was. When he saw them coming, he was overcome with pity and healed their sick” (Matthew 14:13-14 MSG).
As I return from a week of vacation and respite from my ministry, I am reflecting on the difficulty of getting away. Jesus used a boat to get away. I would like to claim that I use a sailboat to get away because I am seeking to follow Jesus, even in my mode of vacation transportation, but the truth is: I love sailing. Two millennia ago, Jesus had trouble escaping notice. As a pastor in the twenty-first century, my ego does not extend to claiming equal fame with Jesus, yet I am unsuccessful at going incognito.
During the week, when someone asks, “What do you do in Kilmarnock?” I respond, “I am a pastor.” This can lead to a casual conversation about religion, a comment about the ‘world today’ or something like it, or the listener ignores my response. The last reaction is my favorite, not because I do not care about the person, but because I am seeking to reconnect with my family and recharge my emotional and spiritual batteries. Usually, a casual conversation does not disrupt vacations. The digital interaction can be the most disruptive.
On Tuesday of my time away, a person in my congregation sent a long accusatory email, outlining his grievances. He imagined some political beliefs and assigned these beliefs to me, and then railed against these beliefs. As a practice, I do not preach politics. My modus operandi for ministry is (1) seek God first, (2) love people where they are, and (3) be open to whatever God calls me to do. One of my most frequent benedictions is inspired by Brother Lawrence, “Walk in constant awareness of Christ, just as Jesus walked on this earth in constant awareness of his father in heaven.” If one were to poll my congregation, the majority would confirm these guiding principles, I believe. However, this person’s email was emotionally disruptive. Instead of focusing on my family, I began formulating a response. This man’s insensitive assault on my precious family time aggravated me. Then, my inability to shut it off irritated me. Finally, I moved the email from my inbox to a church folder and placed a reminder to respond to it when I return.

Sailing past Kiptopeke Beach and the breakwater made of World War II ships, I thought about the digital invasion. On the one hand, twenty or fifty years ago, setting sail over the horizon meant being virtually out of touch. On the other hand, twenty years ago, people did not have as much discretionary income or recreational time. Fifty years ago, there was even less time and money. Technological improvements make possible the kind of vacations we have available today. In the 1960s, FRP (fiberglass reinforced plastic) sailboats revolutionized recreational sailing. In 2016, my family and I can enjoy a sunrise on the Atlantic Ocean in relative safety and remain in touch with family and friends.
Sabbath keeping and vacations require spiritual discipline. Instead of letting the world creep into these sacred family times, I can say, as Barth responded to Brunner, “Nein!” From the opening line of a disruptive email or text, we can make a judgment call. Is this an emergency? If the answer is ‘no’ (“Nein!”), then put the message aside, do not read it, place a reminder to read it later, and carry on focusing on building family relationships.
On Sunday morning, after I returned to my normal life, someone asked, “How is so-and-so?” I had no idea. Someone else filled me in. He had gone to the hospital a few days earlier. When I called his wife, she explained, “I knew that you were on vacation and didn’t want to bother you. He’s doing better and [the associate pastor] visited us.” Thank God for thoughtful people like her, even though I would have wanted to know about her husband.
Jesus had compassion when the people found him. We could learn from Jesus’ compassion, but if we never recharge our batteries, we will be more apt to burnout and less effective in ‘walking in constant awareness of Christ.’ God provides. Ministry stills happens. And, people are allowed to get away.

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