I-phone theology

by Richard Helmer

On Friday, July 11th, I rose early with designs on the AT&T store in San Rafael. It was the day the new improved iPhone was hitting the stores, and Apple had done what it always does best – generated fanatical demand for their newest, latest, coolest product. Sure enough, I got to the cellular store at 6:45, credit card and drivers license in my pocket, to find a line of nearly forty people already waiting there. They were stretched out around the block, Starbucks cups in hand, waiting outside the door to be among the first to have the new iPhone launching at 8:00 sharp. There was laughter, a bit of embarrassment, a few quarters for the parking meter, and then I was in line, too, feeling smug that I had beaten the clock as more and more people filed behind me.

Apple had created in me and a million other people a rather expensive iPhone-shaped hole. We were bound and determined to get one to fill that little void. What made it truly silly was that I already have one, and it’s only a year old. It’s just not as fast as the new one, just not as snazzy. So I’d been pining away for the new model for weeks, fed by a steady stream of advertising and commentary online, the happy sales pitch of a guy with glasses in a plain black sweater telling me how convenient, compact, productive, efficient, and cool my life would be with the shiny new piece of plastic with a glass screen and a computer chip inside my pocket.

For about an hour, I enjoyed talking with the people around me in line. There was the lady behind me with two dogs. I wondered if they needed iPhones, too. She was having a lively chat with her son about whether or not they could upgrade based on their current cellular plan, and whether the new data plan was worth the cost. The father and his son in front of me talked about all the new programs that could now be downloaded to the gadget. The lady in front of them was sitting on the sidewalk, furiously scribbling down all the phone numbers from her old iPhone’s contacts application. She’d dropped hers in water a few weeks earlier. It didn’t turn off any more, and she couldn’t synchronize it with her computer, so she had to turn to the archaic mode of pen and paper or she’d lose all her important data when she upgraded.

I was starting to feel a little sorry for her when sales people from the store came out to chat with us in line: to make sure we understood all that was required of us to get our hands on the new gadget; to make sure we understood our choices; to make change for the parking meters. They counted heads and assured us there was enough stock to sell us all an iPhone that morning. Their aim was good business: to make us as comfortable as possible as we desperately waited for their generous hospitality in the shiny, clean store – generous hospitality offered so that they could take our money and help us sign our lives away through a new two-year contract for the shiny, black (or white, if you want it) beastie.

I assuaged any feelings of guilt by working on my sermon while standing in line, but I couldn’t quite get the question out of my mind: Why was I really there? At 8:00 the doors opened, and AT&T began processing the new iPhone customers five at a time, promising an average of ten minutes per customer. I timed things out in my head but remained in denial about the conclusion I was forced to draw. At 8:15 the line, already slow, slowed further. At 8:30, it had ground almost to a halt.

The rolling launch of the new iPhone around the world was clogging up Apple’s systems, the computers had stopped talking to one another, and people were looking down the gauntlet of waiting for countless hours in line to get the device. Everybody else was calling work or home to cancel appointments and moving the day’s schedule around so they could stay in line. Thing was, I couldn’t. At 8:45 I had to return to the church. Morning Prayer was on the agenda as well as a memorial service. I had to print my sermon for the memorial, and there was much to be done in the office.

Suddenly I was heartsick. I would not be getting the new iPhone that day. And didn’t I deserve one? My love for gadgets is almost legendary in the community where I serve. It gets so bad at times that my wife has resorted to declaring computing-free (and that means iPhone-free) zones in our apartment.

“For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit,” Paul writes the Church in Rome in this past Sunday’s Epistle. For Paul, “flesh” is a technical theological term, one that appears to encompass all in our nature that opposes or ignores the life that God offers us. “Flesh” means our addiction to all that is not God, to our quixotic pursuit of more with the insistence of scarcity biting at our heels, chasing us into selfish ambitions.

Living in America too frequently cannot be defined as a state of being. It might better be defined as a “state of consuming.” And with the economy, the housing market, the stock market, the consumer market all down for a time, we’re all suffering some symptoms of consumption withdrawal, withdrawal from living “according to the flesh.” Yet our sufferings are nothing compared with much of the world’s population as food prices soar and resources become scarcer.

As I left the line last Friday, I said goodbye to the people I had gotten to know a little in that hour-and-a-half. “Sorry,” said one man to me, with a look of true pity that I had to go to work, and I wouldn’t be getting my hands on the new gadget that morning. “Yeah,” I said, “me too.” But on the way home, glancing at my older iPhone model on the dash, I realized the little empty iPhone-shaped hole in me was an entry point for God, and through that grace I began to wake up.

I could see more clearly now that I was headed home to lead a memorial service for parishioner who, as a pediatrician, had given her lifetime so that countless children could have healthy lives in our community. How could I forget the blessings that I had received, that the fields all around are rich with the grain planted by our God, nourished by a creation that doesn’t toil in assembly lines or work out market strategies or weigh the cost of every action or every individual?

Ours is a God who explodes our human notions of value, and our theories of supply and demand with the simple formula of grace: the supply of God’s love for us and for all Creation is infinite and unbounded. Perhaps the silver lining of this economic downturn is that it can become for many of us a reality check, a graceful opportunity to get back in touch with what is truly important. This time is an opportunity to really help those who are truly in need, and to stop pursuing illusion and vanities. To learn again how to tend our wayward hearts and our deepest longings for a God who loves us.

Christian economics works this way:

We call a small portion of bread and a sip of wine God – Christ’s flesh and blood – spiritual things to which we are called. And we consume them. Because we know deep down we become what we consume. We consume them so we may return to being made in God’s image, become more Christ-like, more imbued with grace for a world in true need. And around this tiny sacrifice, worth not even pennies to the great economic and governmental powers of our day, is built the compassion and love that truly nourishes our lives.

That satisfies me in a way that no shiny new iPhone ever could. That calls me to give it up for greater things. And that is what God and I at last agreed on the way back from San Rafael, Highway 101 the path, the draw of true human life and real needs back at home guiding the turns of the wheel.

It took God a while to break through all the hype, but God finally did. God always does.

The Rev. Richard E. Helmer serves as rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif. He has served in interfaith, ecumenical, diocesan, and national church organizations, including Episcopal Asiamerica Ministries , stewardship, and ethnic and multicultural church settings. He blogs regularly about spirituality, ministry, Anglicanism, and church politics at Caught by the Light.

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