Two weeks ago, I was reclining on a lounge chair on a small beach area on Golden Lake, west of Eganville. It was early evening. The sun was setting over the trees at the western shore of the lake. Nothing stirred. Everything was serene, calm, quiet.
I loved it. The water surface was as flat and smooth as a mirror. The air and sky around me had this warm, golden slightly hazy mid-summer hue. Beautiful!
Behind me, and a bit further down was a middle-aged couple sitting in some chairs. Both of them were peering down at their laps. Guess what? Both were engrossed in their tablets and smart phones, probably checking on their Twitter feed, playing Scrabble or Solitaire, reading emails or texting their family back home. And they kept at it for as long as I was there.
It made me wonder how one could be so absorbed in doing that, while all around, the world is bursting with breath-taking beauty.
It made me think of my own compulsion even in that moment to reach for my phone, and check emails and texts. Part of me was wrestling with a compulsive distractedness, the unceasing temptation to grasp onto and chew on a whole bunch of different or new ideas, entertaining thoughts, or mindless distractions.
It’s been said that the disease of today’s mobile Internet age is “continuous partial attention”; our collective inability to be still, to focus, and to pay full, deep attention to one thing, one idea, one person at a time.
This becomes apparent especially, don’t you find, when you’re talking to someone in front of you, and you’re listening with only half an ear, not really paying full attention to what they’re saying, but rather wondering about our schedule for the rest of the day, what we need still to accomplish, what to have for supper, when to pick the kids up from dance practice.
Someone once compared the mind to a tree full of monkeys, constantly jumping from branch to branch, darting around, shouting and chattering to each other.
Our compulsive distractedness maybe isn’t a unique problem for us in this day and age of the Internet. It’s always been with us.
The desert monks of the fourth century in Egypt, sincere followers of Jesus, who left behind the distracted frantic city life for the desert, in search of a deeper relationship with God and others, were horrified to discover that even in the quiet isolation of their desert hermitage, their minds were just as distracted.
Out of that discovery emerged the great traditions of Christian prayer and meditation to help them begin to quiet their distracted monkey minds, and slowly begin, over time, to pay attention not to themselves, but to God.
It’s interesting that one of your questions for this summer’s “Wrestling with the Big Questions” sermon series, was getting at this very problem, experienced not only individually, but also within the church, in the community of faith.
Essentially your question was, as I heard it: How, in the church, can we keep “the main thing, the main thing? How can we keep our focus on the big, all important matters, like the church’s Gospel mission to the world, and cultivating our relationship with God and others in caring community, while at the same time appropriately handle the small problems and seeming pettiness of church life?
It’s good that today’s Gospel reading seems to get at this very question. Jesus visits his friends, Martha and Mary. Martha is scurrying around frantically, getting food ready and cleaning the house for Jesus, while Mary, from the very moment Jesus enters the home, sits at Jesus’ feet and pays full and undivided attention to him.
When Martha begins to complain that she’s so busy and working so hard, while Mary isn’t helping her, Jesus says to Martha: “Martha, Martha, you’re fussing far too much, and getting yourself worked up over nothing. One thing only is essential, and Mary has chosen it – it’s the main thing…”
One thing is essential in the spiritual life, and in church-land:
Paying attention to God’s Word.
Reading scripture together.
Asking about its meaning.
In Bible study groups, listening to good teaching on the Bible.
Attending worship and listening to substantive Biblical teaching in sermons.
Wrestling with the questions.
Studying and nurturing a faith that seeks understanding.
Praying and meditating together.
These are the essential, core practices that mark a community of faith as one which is hospitable to Christ, and pays attention to God’s Word.
When this is the focus, then even the seeming small petty details of church life fall into place, begin to take on a new light and become more endurable. And they don’t take on more prominence than they should.
Jesus isn’t against action, or against being busy. Jesus wasn’t going after Busy Martha, but Worried and Distracted Martha. Both the contemplative and the active are needed in the spiritual life, and the life and mission of the church.
Author Anne Lamott shares an observation of monk seals which are native to Hawaii. These monk seals will swim ashore to rest on the sand. And so you can have a whole gaggle of seals simply lying still on the warm sand, basking in the sun, resting.
But the newest tourists on the beach see these very still and quiet seals, and immediately think they are dying and need to be rescued by pouring water on them, or trying to lift and drag them back into the water. Workers from nearby beach resorts have to put yellow safety tape and traffic cones to rope off the space for the seals to rest in, and to keep over-anxious tourists out.
It’s interesting the first impression people have of these seals, in the context of our frantic, distracted and worried lives.
But we can learn from these seals.
Mother monk seals will actually train their young to rest, swimming with their pups up onto the sand for a while before slipping back into the waves. Mother and pup will do this over and over again. So important is that time of rest for monk seals, allowing them the strength to return to the waters for a busy and active life.
To be still. Intentionally, to find those moments of quiet stillness, sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening and pondering God’s Word, opening one’s heart to the Spirit. To value and cherish those contemplative moments, which then allow us to return to our busy lives and world with renewed strength, passion and commitment.