We have a practice at Tiny Church of “blessing the backpacks” at the end of each summer. Children and youth bring their backpacks to church and we have a short ritual (usually a responsive reading) in which we send them into the coming school year. We pray for their teachers and their parents; we pray for their friends, their bus drivers, their cafeteria helpers; and we pray that the children would learn and grow into the people God has created them to be.
Sometimes we add on a “blessing of the tools.” People bring in various tools they use in their jobs, hobbies and volunteer work, and we say a prayer for them too. We get everything from iPads to gardening gloves.
The idea is that Christian vocation is not limited to those things we traditionally think of as “religious.” We bring our whole selves to our work, and are called to live our faith through the way we treat clients, co-workers, bosses, shareholders, and the earth’s resources.
Both of these ideas have come from friends and colleagues. (Remember, I like to imitate and innovate.) Now that I’m doing a lot of workshops on Sabbath-keeping, I’ve adapted the blessing of the tools to focus specifically on cell phones. There’s always a bit of ambivalence about cell phones at retreats. As a speaker I don’t forbid their use; in fact, I like it when people tweet while I’m speaking. Such activities can pull us deeper into the experience. But it can also pull us away from the moment. My hope is that a cell phone ritual helps people be intentional about the use of technology during a retreat.
I’ve used some variation of this at the beginning of Sabbath workshops and retreats. It’s a way of acknowledging the many roles we play and the constant pull to be connected, to be relevant and useful. That impulse to connect can lead to many life-giving things. And it can also leave us scattered and overwhelmed.
First, I have people trade phones with someone they’re sitting next to. I have them cup the person’s phone in their hands, and I say something like this:
We hold in our hands these tools of connection.
They ring and we answer; they buzz and we respond.
For some of us, this is our tether… our calendar… our means of expressing ourselves… our means of reaching out, being heard, caring and being cared for, and exploring our world. We have more information at our fingertips, more data on demand, than any generation in the history of the world. That is a weighty thing.
Sometimes these possibilities excite us. Sometimes these connections bring light and joy to our lives.
But sometimes they feel like a burden. There is always another article we could read, always another website to peruse, another message to respond to, another person we might call.
We pray for the person whose phone we hold. We pray for the many roles they play, their connections to parishioners, to family, friends and loved ones. We pray for their responsibilities, their ministry. We pray for the heaviness and the lightness of those relationships and responsibilities.
We pray a silent blessing for this fellow traveler. O God you hear our prayer, Amen.
In one particular retreat, I had asked people to bring things from home that helped them create restful, Sabbath spaces in their lives. People brought photo albums, knitting, books, cooking tools, and so forth. After talking about them with one another we had piled them in the middle of the table. So at that retreat I closed the cell phone ritual by saying:
Before you give the phone back to its owner, hold it in your hands once more and look again at the centerpiece on your table. This is the tension in which we live, this is the push and pull of our lives, oscillating between work and play, toil and rest, connection and solitude. We pray for ourselves and each person at this gathering, that they would navigate that push and pull in ever more faithful ways, always remembering the command to love God, love neighbor, and love ourselves.