When I was very young, my family lived in the quiet Lakeside neighborhood of Duluth. One morning there was a police car parked on our city block, which gave me and a couple of my friends the super sweet opportunity to look closely into the windows of something we only regularly saw on television.
The only thing I remember about the inside of that cop car from 40-some years ago was that there was a telephone in it. That absolutely bewildered and astonished us: a car with a phone in it! I could not even imagine how cool that was. That police officer could make phone calls from his car while he was driving! That captured my imagination unlike anything else at the time, and obviously it made some impact, because all these years later that incident still plays vividly in my memory’s eye.
Fast forward 40-some years and that memory seems very mundane and ordinary. I hardly have to explain how normal it is to have a phone in your car, because everyone has a phone that they carry with them at all times. In my half century of life, no doubt it is phones, computers, and communication in general that have changed the most. Not too long ago I asked a woman in my parish who is 106 years old what the invention that most changed her life was. She said it was the washing machine. For me it is computers and phones.
Back when we all had only land lines, it was easy to evade phone calls; all you had to do was leave your house, and no one could reach you. (There is something attractive about that.) There were phone books, so everyone had access to your number, but there was no Caller ID, so you never knew who was ringing from the other end. Caller ID unfortunately ended the childhood activity of making prank calls. All of this seems so yesteryear and so innocent.
As far as I know there are no phone books that list cell phone numbers, though you don’t have to try too hard to find someone’s number. And our own personal phone books are programmed in our phones. As of my writing this column, I have 384 contacts in my phone, which brings up an important point: how and who do you decide to give your number to? It is an important question, because once we give our numbers out, that person now has constant access to us, because we constantly have our phones with us.
I know we priests have different ideas about this. Some priests who are better than I am publish their numbers in their bulletins. I don’t do that, and I do not want to. When I give out my number, I always tell the person that under pain of excommunication not to give my number to anyone else, simply because in my very public life I view my cell phone number as one of the few parts of my life I can still keep private.
All of this is to make an important theological point. Back in the book of Exodus, when God spoke to Moses through the burning bush, Moses boldly asked God his name, and God answered, “I Am Who Am,” or, “YHWH.” It may seem odd (and even corny) to say this, but it was at that very moment that God gave mankind his cell phone number. When God revealed his name to Moses, he in essence gave mankind constant access to him. Now that we have his name, we can always call upon him, and he will always answer.
Here is another analogy to make this point. At the beginning of every school year, kindergarten teachers always have the challenge of getting their students to address them by name. Children will often call on their teacher by simply saying, “teacher, teacher.” I know some of those kindergarten teachers will eventually not respond to the children until they figure out their names are the proper address to get their attention.
Now, we can call out, “God, God,” in prayer, and that really works, but is it not more intimate to call out to God by his name? The name was so sacred to the early Jewish people that they actually prohibited it from being spoken, so they came up with replacement names like Adonai and el Shaddai for God.
The point is this. Unlike we humans, who like to regulate who has access to us by limiting who gets our phone numbers and who does not, God allows full access at all times to all people. He did that when he revealed his name to Moses. We for our part, must never shy away, thinking our problems are too petty to bring to God’s attention. He always wants to hear from us for any reason whatsoever.