Surviving a Screen Sabbatical

I spent most of Saturday, my daughter swears, on my phone: reading, writing, and probably a little arithmetic. Among the things that caught my attention was the article in The Atlantic that described a whole generation of young people shaped by their smart phones. Loneliness and depression were the chief results, it asserted.


When she announced that the next day—Sunday—would be a screen sabbatical, I immediately said yes. As it was already past ten in the evening, I turned off my phone and sat it on the table beside the bed.


But when I awoke the next morning, I had no idea the time. My phone was off and there was not a single clock in the house we had rented for the week—not in either bed room nor the living room, not in the large family room downstairs that slept up to six people and was equipped with TV, game boards, and both an air hockey and foosball tables. But no clock.


Finally, in the kitchen for the third time, I located on the stove—an appliance we had sworn not to use the whole week—a digital clock.


It was 8:29 Eastern Standard Time.


“Are you going to church?” she had asked me the night before. And when I said yes, she said, “I’d like to go but not to the churches in town. Let’s find a mountain church, or a holiness church.”


I liked the idea. But how do you do that, exactly, without a phone?


Well, you don’t. A smart phone allows you to GPS anything, including holiness churches in and around Boone, North Carolina. But our house came with no local newspaper and no phone book. Do they even print those things anymore?


I ended up driving downtown but not before I pulled into a food mart and asking the clerk, “Can you tell me how to find downtown Boone?” I had already driven for 20 minutes in a hopeless search for what might pass for the urban core of this mountain university town.


She told me, and I did what she told me to do. I passed, first, the Lutheran church, then turned the corner by the Daniel Boone Inn and saw the steeple of First Baptist Church.


The sign out front announced worship at 11:00 and the doors of the church were wide open twenty minutes early. I parked the car, and my grandson and I walked for fifteen minutes down the main street and back, mostly to delay our entry into an unfamiliar church.


But it wasn’t unfamiliar at all, as it turned out: hymn books, bibles, pews, pipes, and about one hundred people in a church that I surmised had been on a long down-grade even while the wider community had been on a parallel up-grade. That, also, is a familiar pattern.


I had my phone by my side but kept it off or I would have looked up the history of their pastor. His name carried the suffix Jr, and I suspected his Sr had crossed paths with me years ago. I could not confirm it until I shook his hand as we took our leave.


“Yes, I have roots in Kentucky,” he said in response to my question. “My dad taught mathematics at Georgetown College.”


As it turned out, his father departed that college for another the same year as I departed the school with a bachelor’s degree in religion. I did not tell him I was a minister or that I was observing a screen sabbath or that my grandson was a day away from his eleventh birthday or that it was the eve of my wedding anniversary.


Sam and I walked down the street to the nearby bookstore. “I’ll buy you a book for your birthday,” I said to him; and he selected volume one of the Thirty-Nine Clues book series, entitled The Maze of Bones. I picked up Bryan Stevenson’s best seller Just Mercy—which I had been intending to read for months—and also a novel by Philip K. Dick (whom I knew only by the blurb on the book cover since I could not google anything).


If I had my smart phone available, I would have also looked up the author of the book I had read with the late Jack Birdwhistell, Giving Glory to God in Appalachia, while both of us were on the faculty of the aforementioned Georgetown College. I remembered only that the author in question taught at Appalachian State University. I resorted to an ancient practice: I asked the clerk. He looked it up on his smart screen: Howard Dorgan, he announced; who died seven years ago this week right here in Boone, my Monday-evening smart phone search told me.


By 3:30 in the afternoon I was suffering some sort of withdraw. When no one was looking, I turned on my phone and checked everything, but alas: no texts, no emails, no phone calls, and almost nothing on Facebook.


I turned off my smart phone. It was clear what I had suspected for a long time: most of my social media activity was simply responses to my own texts, emails, calls, and posts. It is the sad reality of me and my two thousand, seven hundred, and ninety-seven friends on Facebook.


Later, I took my wife to dinner. Across from us, a father and mother were eating their last meal together before dropping  off their son to begin his soccer career at the local university. They were a long way from their Dallas home, and that is perhaps why, more than once when I glanced their way, all of three of them were, yes, on their phones.


On this sobering note my screen sabbath came to a close, an hour or two after dark. I turned off the lights and settled down to surf the web and read a half dozen or so articles I had missed during my screen sabbatical. I felt so much better.



copyright Dwight A. Moody 2019