A couple of weeks ago I was working on the fresh translation of 1 Corinthians 13. I was deeply into the Greek, comparing other translations and trying to find my own way to capture the meaning I saw in the language of the heart. Right in the middle of one of the stickier translation verses, I see a Facebook message from my college friend Anne who lives in Dallas inviting me to read a post about “Praying with various Myers-Briggs Personality Types.” I quickly touched the interrupting bar and it took me to the Facebook page with the post. I looked through the list for my personality type and found this:
INFP: God, help me to finish everything I sta…
I laughed so hard at my own truth I had to message her back thanking her for the post and telling her that in a few weeks I was planning to offer this sermon: “Praying in the midst of distractions.” I promised that her message would be my opening illustration.
How do we get anything done, much less accomplish a life of prayer in the midst of so many distractions? I am constantly tempted to check Facebook (what are my friends up to? has anyone “liked” or commented on my last post?) or Twitter, (not only checking those I follow, but also watching for what is trending in case I miss out on something good). I was struck by how many Facebook and Twitter posts I saw Wednesday from friends giving up these platforms for Lent. What does that say about us? What does it say about the nature of our connections?
A few weeks ago our family was eating out and we observed that at a table nearby everyone was on a smartphone, parents and children, everyone was on their own phone texting, tweeting, updating status or location, checking email, surfing the web, who knows? What we observed was that through the entire meal, there was no conversation, no interaction with one another, only with the waiter to give their orders. The day is coming soon when we will not even need waiters, all we’ll have to do is just beam our order to kitchen, which will text when food can be picked up.
It is easy to cast stones, but the truth is I will often be playing backgammon on the iPad waiting for boys and Elizabeth to be ready for prayers in the evenings. Once they all arrive, I inevitably have just one more roll, just one more move, I’ve almost got it! We do our prayers by mutual invitation and can always tell the most distracted among us by who knows who has shared highs and lows and who has forgotten who has already gone. All too often I am the one who did not listen or even know what my children’s or my spouse’s prayer was.
Even if it is not some electronic device, the distractions of our lives can overwhelm. It was about a month ago that Elizabeth got in my face and asked me where I was because I wasn’t here, I wasn’t with her or the boys. Then she said words that really stung. She said, “you haven’t been here for the past month. You drift through the house, you show up for dinner but you are not here.” I had let the church get in the way of my family. My struggles, my pain had become my obsession. My soul was held captive to church issues, to trying to fix things myself. “When things get hard,” I had always learned, “just work harder.”
My hard work ended up digging a pit, and Elizabeth and the boys were standing at the edge looking down at me wondering why I didn’t see them anymore. The pit had become my home. I kept trying to clear the mud at the bottom of the pit, never stopping to realize that the deeper I dug, the more mud I created. Elizabeth’s words stung and woke me up, called me back to reality, allowed me to see the pit and to ask, “do I really want to live here?” Have you ever found yourself in a pit like that?
Distractions can easily become a pit for us, isolating us from the ones we love, from the people with whom we work, from the God we serve. Before we know it we become accustomed to the distractions, we feel safe in the walls of the pit, isolated from the pain outside. But we are still in a pit. The good news is God sent Christ to redeem our lives from the pit. He even climbs down in the muck with us to help us find our way out.
We are wired to be distracted. Focus does not come easily to us human beings. When we smell smoke, we drop what we are doing to escape the fire. It is a biological imperative. When we are hungry, we seek food to fill the hungry place because without food, we will die. Biology 101.
So when Jesus was driven into the wilderness for a time of fasting and prayer, it is no wonder he was tempted to fill his emptiness. “If you are the son of God, command these stones to be turned into loaves of bread,” came the voice of temptation. But Jesus knew something different. He knew that while he needed to eat to survive, his survival without God was not better than life with God. “One does not live by bread alone,” Jesus said, “but by every word that comes from God.”
Fasting, depriving himself of food, was Jesus’ way to become more aware of his hunger for God. But notice, Jesus did not allow his hunger to become his obsession, he did not allow himself to dig a pit of despair. Instead, he remained open and vulnerable to the distraction, allowing it to drive his awareness of God’s presence. When his distraction became a temptation, he was able to resist not because he’s better at beating the devil than we are, but because he trusted in God’s mercy and grace more than we perhaps do. Rather than trying to solve his problem himself, he asked God, “what would you teach me in this circumstance.” The answer, of course, was to rely on God’s word; God’s word alone can sustain us in the midst of distraction and temptation. He resisted temptation successfully because he knew his own story, and he knew his place in God’s story. How can we resist temptation if we don’t know our own story or our place in God’s story?
God can take the distractions of our lives and use them if we allow Christ to direct our longings instead of allowing our distractions to become obsessions. To be alive is to be distracted. We cannot stop it. We can only redirect our distractions back to God. Instead of focusing on our distractions, getting lost in them or trying to fix or deal with them, what would happen if we yielded them instead, giving them back to God in prayer? What would happen if we asked God to take our cares and our concerns, our longings and our obsessions and teach us something or lead us somewhere through them? The incomparable C.S. Lewis says it this way:
The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own’ or ‘real’ life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life– the life God is sending one day by day: what one calls one’s ‘real life’ is a phantom of one’s own imagination.
How can we embrace the interruptions that are our lives without letting them become distractions? Only by attending to God moment by moment, by listening to and through God’s word, asking, “God, what are you teaching me now? Use this to draw me into greater communion with you,” only then do our interruptions become gift and not distraction from the holy things God is placing before us.
The problem is, I think most of us actually like our distractions. They are familiar and comfortable. They become like the walls of the pit, keeping out the really painful stuff and making us feel safe.
We like the Facebook because it gives us a sense of connection without actually having to have a conversation with anyone.
We like Twitter because it is one way, no one can talk back, we can only be “retweeted.”
We like the TV because we can watch our favorite shows and get lost in their worlds, which seem somehow more thrilling or exotic or interesting or romantic than the one we live in.
We like our pornography or our sports or our drinking for the same reason, they can take us away from…this.
We like our favorite news sources because they reinforce what we think, and if we only watch one channel, read one website, listen to one voice we will never need to be challenged by reality.
We like our online games or our books or our hobbies because there is a constancy there, a repetition, a predictability that we do not find in real life.
And then there’s busyness. We like our busyness because it gives us a sense of purpose and meaning and keeps us from having to reflect on the question, “why do we do what we do the way we do it.” We just keep busy, busy like Dory in Finding Nemo, “just keep swimming, just keep swimming,” endlessly swimming, mindlessly busy.
We like our distractions. They keep us safe. They insulate us from one another. They keep God at a distance.
We all have distractions, large and small. The question is what we will do with them. I invite you to give them to God. I invite you to take a piece of paper and write down what is distracting you, what is keeping you from living freely and fully in Jesus? What is consuming you or walling you off from your loved ones or friends? What do you use to keep God at a distance? What excuses do you give for not listening to Jesus’ voice? What busyness do you have that keeps you from simply being, learning again that you are a beloved child of God? I invite you to write your responses on the paper and bring it up to the cross during our prayer time. There are nails in the cross. Puncture the paper on the nails and leave it there, leave your distractions and temptations and obsessions in Jesus’ hands. No one will read them. We’re not asking for your signature. Just give them to Jesus. Let him take them from you, free you from them, help you find life again. Then let’s learn to make a habit of it, giving all our distractions to Jesus so he can redirect us and make something new and beautiful and God honoring out of them.
I invite you to pray with me:
God you know all things. You know the interruptions of our lives; you know our distractions; you know our obsessions. You know all the things we let stand between us and a better relationship with you. Accept these prayers, and as we nail our distractions to the cross, help us to leave them there, so that in your hands, they, and we, may be redeemed through the power of the crucified one and the Holy Spirit who raises us to new life in you. Amen.