Fighting with Phone Companies, Pt. 2
& a Baptismal Alternative to “Meh…”
This is not my first blog about this particular frustration. Every time that I have to deal with one of them, I vow to myself that I’m not going to get upset. I don’t have to name who they are. You know them. They are big and powerful, and they provide us with phone, television and internet services.
This past Friday, I made that vow once again: after all, my request was a simple one. I needed to change my sister-in-law’s television package. They must process requests like this thousands of times a day, I reasoned. What could there be to get upset about?
I spent two hours on hold, being transferred from one apathetic person to another, and then finally to a ‘specialist.’ When we finally supposedly sorted out the problem, and I could resume my day (which I had hoped would consist of things other than being on hold with a variety of people I don’t know, working at a problem that I can’t understand), I commented to my husband Dan, “you know, the thing is that I’m not even convinced after all of that that they got it right.” Sure enough, later that day, Dan received a call back (even though he’s not the contact for the account and should never have been called about the matter) asking to confirm that we were cancelling the phone line for his grandmother who lives in a nursing home. Somehow after that whole morning of frustration, what one of the many people I dealt with took away from my very simple request was that he should disconnect the phone line for a 93 year old woman living in care, whose only way of accessing the outside world is through her phone.
There are a few things about my experience here that need to be named upfront. I am a person of enormous privilege. Even taking into account the fact that the television service I was trying to change was for my sister-in-law and not me, still the idea of complaining about having to wait a while to connect services that I’m enormously lucky to have would fall into the category of gross entitlement. I hear Leonard Cohen’s words ringing in my ears: “I struggled with some demons, they were middle class and tame.” Certainly, my yelling on the phone to complete strangers who are not paid well enough to have to deal with people like me all day, and who (probably) didn’t intentionally cut off my grandmother-in-law’s phone and might not even really be trying to make my life more difficult, is nothing short of sinful. I was not proud of myself or my behaviour, and I know that I need to do better.
On the other hand, there is a larger dimension to my experience, too. The fact that a company as lucrative as this one would hire people piecemeal, each one responsible for one little disconnected piece of customer care, none of them particularly invested in their jobs or the company that they work for, passing me off one to another with absolutely no way of communicating properly either with me, with each other, or with their company, actually points to the deepest and most critical fractures that exist across how we choose to structure ourselves as a people. This, in fact, provides a telling image for all that is most wrong with our world: five separate people sitting in front of their computer screens in tiny cubicles located goodness-knows-where, but certainly not anywhere in the vicinity of one another, each completely unable to connect with me or with one another, while I yell at them from my middle-class home over the phone.
Because here we are on this earth in 2019, and the planet is burning up, and we have real problems that we need to figure out together. We live in a hyper-connected mass media, social media, landscape. And none of us is really talking to anyone else. We just keep getting louder and louder, we get more entrenched in our own positions, more polarized in our politics and more people have never felt more lonely and isolated.
This past weekend, one of our options for the Gospel of the day was a strained healing encounter between Jesus and a man who had been sick for thirty-eight years. The sick man is lying by some pools of water in Jerusalem, which were thought to have healing properties for whoever was able to get into the pool the quickest when ‘the waters were stirred up.’ This man was in the habit of lying there every day, even though he had no hope of getting into the pool first because he was too sick and too alone, and yet when Jesus singled him out from all of the suffering masses around the pool and asked him, “do you want to be made well?”, his answer was a definite, “meh…”. When Jesus did make him well, this unnamed man continued in a remarkably apathetic way, showing no signs of gratitude or gladness for his changed life. And perhaps that’s not his fault. We don’t have any insight into the circumstances that have so beaten him down, left him without hope that life could be any different even when life does become different. But perhaps he offers us insight into our own lives.
In Christian baptism, we are asked to renounce “Satan and the spiritual forces of evil that rebel against God, the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, and the sinful desires that draw you from the love of God.” What does it mean to renounce the forces and choices which divide and destroy life? We can certainly agree that estrangement and separation would appear to rule the day: in our relationship with one another, this planet and with God. But most of us live most of the time just like that sick guy by the pool. We accept that we’re trapped and unwell because we just can’t imagine what it would take to make anything different. And even when we are asked outright by the One who shows us the path to that different way if we want to be made well, we mostly answer with a resounding, “meh…”
The amazing thing is that mercy and goodness and blessing is poured out on this guy anyway, even if he can’t see his way out. “Pick up your mat and walk,” Jesus says. And this man does, even if he seems to still be a long way off from grasping with grateful hands the life that God is offering him. And there might be the clue for us, in this story, and in the act of baptism. It’s right before us. This different way of living is right before us. This new life is on offer, changing us and healing us and blessing us even right now.
It is named in the covenant of baptism: a step-by-step outline of the road Jesus walked, showed and paved for us. We will accept that we are works-in-progress and trust that forgiveness and change are possible both for ourselves and for others; we will match the things we say we believe with actions that put flesh on our words; we will treat the people and creatures and world around us as gifts from God, alive with God’s image and purpose; we will honour that same purpose and image of God in ourselves. We will be together. We will be together because we can’t know, understand or love God alone. We can’t tell our sacred stories, we can’t offer our prayers, we can’t draw closer to God by ourselves. Those silky-skinned babies who are so often the ones we are baptizing into the life of the church stand in clear witness to the basic truth that we come into this world as dependent, relational beings, that we need one another for any of this to work, and that when we try to live otherwise — locked in separate cubicles, yelling at one another over phone lines even as profits soar — we will be sick.
The world might say that the church is becoming irrelevant, and yet as I unlocked the doors of our sanctuary once again on Sunday morning to welcome the world in, I saw something more important than ever. I saw a whole community of people who got out of their own little individual spheres of self-involvement that morning and chose instead to be gathered. I saw the antithesis of dislocation inherent in our world, the dislocation that leads so many of us to that apathetic ‘meh,’ even as our planet is burning up and we’re all becoming more and more irate. I issued an invitation for people to come forward to God’s welcome table, and they did — with hands outstretched and walking together because it’s only in God’s gifts offered to all of us can any of us really get what we really need. I heard a mass of voices, voices of different ages and experiences, and those voices were raised, but not in frustration. They were raised to sing and pray and tell stories. This all happened in a place where prayer has been offered for generations and where the hungry get routinely fed.
I was joined with my church once again this weekend, offering up my own desire to be different, my repentance for yelling over the phone at strangers just the day before and looking to sing and pray with a community instead. It really could start with just this: if we keep showing up for one another and reaching out to one another, those are steps out of our ‘meh’ and into the new life that is already before us.