21 July 2013

A World of Distractions

Barry Ritholtz, "How To Focus in an Age of Distractions"
Luke 10: 38-42

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost/ July 21, 2013

When I sent out the worship preview on Friday I included a chaotic looking diagram that attempts to map all the ways we try and fail to maintain focus in our lives. At the center is an image of a man touching his temples, as if to soothe a headache, with a caption that reads, “How to focus in the age of distraction.”   Around him are all the various ways we try to organize and focus our lives, only to discover that all these schemes become further distractions.  We create rituals or habits around how we begin our day or how we end our day.  We manage how and when we respond to email.  We take the time to reflect and review the day and come up with ideas to make tomorrow even more efficient, even more productive.  We have lists—and lists for lists.   We schedule time for digital technology detox—no television, no Facebook, no email, smart phones.  We try to enjoy more time with our family and friends.  We organize all the paper in our home and office, get rid of clutter, make sure all the dishes are clean and empty the sink before we leave the house in the morning.  We’ll eat better.  Sleep better.  Make time for exercise.  Make time for prayer, for worship.  We set up strategies to help us focus, but it seems the more we do these the more difficult it is to be focused.

            Can you relate?  Is this how you feel? Do have a headache just thinking about all of this?  You’re not alone. 

            How do we focus in this age of distraction? It’s even more demanding for those who struggle with Attention Deficit Disorder. There’s always someone or something vying for our attention, pulling us away from the things and people that matter most in our lives.  We’re running in ten thousand directions all at the same time.  We’re being pulled in so many different directions that it’s difficult to focus. And when we ignore or neglect the things and people worthy of our time the guilt and the shame set in.  The guilt and shame are fueled by anxiety, which seems to be a steady hum underneath everything these days.

            Jesus’ visit to the home of Mary and Martha in Bethany could have happened yesterday.  It has a contemporary feel to it, doesn’t it?  It’s a remarkable visit, a remarkable conversation that occurs here in only four verses—four verses intentionally placed by Luke between the story of the lawyer who was anxious about inheriting eternal life, to which Jesus provided the radical Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), as we saw last week, followed by Jesus’ teaching on prayer, showing us how to pray in the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:1-13).

            Mary and Martha are a study in contrasts.  Martha welcomes Jesus into their home.  She extends hospitality.  She does what is expected of her.  Mary takes a break from her work, sits at Jesus’ feet, and listens to what he has to say.  It’s easy to pit them against each other. Martha represents the active life, the worker-bee, the go-getter.  Mary represents the contemplative life, passive, lackadaisical, maybe a mystic.  Jesus obviously favors Mary’s way of being. But it’s not simply either-or here.  Both of these personality types have value.  Although they are both women, these types have little to do with gender.  There’s a Martha and Mary in each of us. 

            That said, because of the way the text is constructed, it’s the Martha-type that Jesus is most concerned about—not because it’s wrong or sinful—but because Jesus knows the way Martha’s moving through her life is hindering her from being attentive to what is right before her very eyes.  She can’t see because she’s distracted.  She can’t focus her attention on God’s visitation where she lives because, in a sense, she’s not home, she’s not there. She’s some place else in her head.  She can’t be in the moment. She’s in the future, considering what has to be done. Therefore she can’t be attentive to what’s moving right in front of her.

            Why is Martha like this?  It’s clear that she resents Mary.  So where does resentment come from?  Resentment is often connected to jealously.  And jealously is often a vector of desire, that is, it indicates what we really want for ourselves.  Did Martha harbor a secret desire to be more like Mary?  Perhaps knowing how difficult that would be for her, to be like Mary, Martha feels unappreciated for what she does contribute to the running of the household.  When we feel unappreciated, it seems like no one really understands us, no one cares about us.  Her resentment toward Mary then spills over toward Jesus.  “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?”  Is she now lumping Mary and Jesus together here, implying that he, too, doesn’t care?  Is she suggesting that he, too, doesn’t appreciate “all the work” she’s doing?

            “All the work by myself,” Martha says.  Well, that’s what she says.  But is she telling the truth?  Is she really doing “all the work” by herself?   It sounds like she’s having a pity party.  It sounds like exaggeration.  If it is, then exaggeration is often a mask meant to cover over or hide something, that prevents others from seeing what’s really going on there underneath.  How much of “all the work” is really necessary work?  How much is unnecessary?  

            It’s clear that Martha likes to keep busy and she values being busy and expects others to be just like her—task oriented, driven, busy—and she’s quick to judge others who don’t measure up the same way.  She’s so bothered by this that she pulls Jesus into her frustration—“you tell her.”  This is a classic triangulation move, which is never healthy in interpersonal relations. Triangulation is when you ask someone to say or do something that you’re unwilling to say or do yourself directly.  Triangulation is never good.

            On the other hand, Mary could just be lazy and Martha knows it.  Maybe Mary has always been allergic to work.  Maybe Mary has always been a dreamer and never had much of a drive.  We don’t know.  Maybe she’s bored by housework and chores and hungers for something more that Jesus now represent?  We’re not sure.

            It’s clear, though:  Martha is the busy-bee in the house.  An admirable quality, to be sure!  But every quality, indeed every virtue, also has a shadow side. In our age we think the busy person is important. We might complain about being busy all the time, but some actually thrive on it. We want to be seen as busy, we don’t want to be seen by anyone, especially our boss, as being inactive, doing nothing.  The more we do, the busier we are, and the more important we think we are.

            A lot of pastors fall into this trap.  A friend calls this the Busy Pastor Syndrome. How are you, pastor?  How are things at the church?  “Oh, busy, very busy, crazy busy. So much is going on at the church. We’re just crazy busy.” (Meaning, I’m busy therefore I’m important.)  But what does it really mean to be busy?

            Sometimes, not all the time, but sometimes busyness is a compulsion, a compulsion that hides a mass of insecurities and fears. Writing last year in The New York Times, Tim Kreider suggests that “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.”

            A hedge against emptiness.  Is that what our busyness really is?  Is that why we’re so distracted? We might complain about distractions, having difficulty focusing, but I wonder if at an unconscious level the opposite is really closer to the truth: we want to be distracted, we don’t want to be focused or attentive to what’s before us.  There’s considerable anxiety under all of this, I know. For what if I don’t like what I find, what if I don’t like what I’m feeling when I stop, when I’m focused and aware?  What if it’s all empty, all hollow underneath?  What then?

            The Greek word used here for distraction means to be pulled or dragged away, drawn in different directions.  When this happens it feels as if we’re being determined by some power or force that is pulling us away from the center.  It’s like being in the sway or under the influence of an orbital force, a kind of gravitational pull, a force that overwhelms us and hinders our ability to pull away.  Even if want to pull away, we can’t.  We’re trapped.

            Psychologists have a word for this:  complex.  A complex is the concentration of energy around an emotionally-charge experience, memory, fear, or anxiety.  A complex is made up of “psychic elements—ideas, opinions, convictions—that are grouped around emotionally sensitive areas.”[1] All of this is going on in the unconscious.  When we are in the thrall of a complex—and we all have them, many of them—we feel like we’re in the grip of something.  Actually, you don’t have a complex; a complex has you.  For example, we’re going along in our day, something happens, someone says something, a changed mood sweeps over us.  That’s a complex. When a complex has us we might feel caught or trapped or hindered.  We might say something that we really don’t want to say, or do something out of character. You can hear it in the language we use, “Something came over me and I don’t know why I said that… or did that….” Most significantly, a complex often usurps our ability to choose or act in a way that we wish. As a result a complex can hinder us from seeing and living in reality.

            As I was reading the text again this week, it felt like Martha was caught in a complex.  We might call this the Martha Complex. It’s clear that she’s in a state, frustrated, resentful, feeling unappreciated, full of activity—but what’s going on under the surface?  What’s stirring there?  Why is Martha so anxious? What’s hindering her from choosing wisely?  This obviously wasn’t an issue for Mary.  Mary chose wisely.  And what she has cannot be taken away from her (Lk 10:42).  This means that Martha chose unwisely.  Martha’s caught up in her “stuff,” her “stuff” colors what she sees and informs her choices. As a result she misses what’s there before her, she misses the Holy in her midst.

            And what does Jesus do?  “Martha, Martha”—did he take her by the arms, I wonder, crossing her path, holding her shoulders, speaking directly into her eyes?  “Martha, Martha, stop. Look at me.  Let me look at you”—as if to break the spell of the complex, discharging its energy—“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.  This really isn’t about all the work and the chores, is it?  You are worried, concerned, anxious.”  The Greek here suggests that her mind was agitated.  You’re freighted with care, Martha.”

            “There is only one thing needed.”  Jesus said. When we’re worried and distracted, we’re pulled in ten thousand directions and pulled away from the one thing needed:  to dwell lovingly in the presence of God, to sit at Jesus’ feet, to be attentive to him, to God, to the movement of the Spirit within our hearts.  Or to put it a different way, this is a life grounded and centered in God. This is what matters most.  This is what our souls hunger for.  When we are distracted and worried, we get pulled away from the One who holds us and sustains us. 

            We need more opportunities in our lives to just stop. Who are we when we remove the distractions? What’s left?  When we’re not working—work, too, can be a distraction—who are we, who is left?  Do you know who is left? Who is left is the real self, the true you; the authentic self that wants to dwell in the presence of God and it’s this deeper, authentic self—the true you—that God desires to be in a relationship with, less the busy, compulsive, anxious self.

            So what do we do with the distractions? We can try to come up with strategies to remove them.  Or, how about just taking the time to stop, to pray, simply be with God? To get to that place of being with God we need to embrace silence—we need much more silence in our lives.  That’s why contemplative practices and worship experiences such as Taizé, which incorporates fifteen minutes (or longer) of silence into the service, are so essential in our lives.   

            When we enter the silence we come to know what Hinduism correctly calls “the monkey brain,” it’s our brains, our minds running in nonstop activity with no direction or purpose.  When I was in India several weeks ago I had monkeys living all around my cottage.  They were out in the front yard, up in the trees, chasing each other over the roof of the cottage.  They were frenetic and always nervous, hyper vigilant.  In the silence we will meet our monkey brains, then we’ll see just how distracted we really are.

            It makes sense why the parable about loving one’s neighbor as oneself and loving God are followed by Jesus’ teaching on prayer.  That should tell us something.  Prayer, especially silent prayer, actually allows us to be more focused and less distracted.  Martin Luther (1483-1546) said (or at least attributed to him):  "Work, work, from morning until late at night.  In fact, I have so much to do that I shall have to spend the first three hours in prayer." And silent prayer, in particular, dwelling in God, can actually help release us from some of our complexes.  When we are silent before God, with silence focused, it’s remarkable how less distracted we become, how more focused we become.

            The bulletin reads:  sermon then a season of silence.  But I want to make the silence part of the sermon by providing an opportunity to practice what I’ve been preaching: to be still, to dwell in God’s presence.  So let us enter into a season of silence. As a guide through this time, you might wish to read slowly to yourself Edwina Gateley’s poem “Let Your God Love You.” So let us be silent and be still:

Be silent.
Be still.
Before your God.
Say nothing.
Ask nothing.
Be silent.
Be still.
Let your God look upon you.
That is all.
God knows.
God understands.
God loves you
With an enormous love,
And only wants
To look upon you
With that love.
Let your God—
Love you.

[1] June Singer, Boundaries of the Soul:  The Practice of Jung’s Psychology (New York:  Anchor Books, 1994), 43ff.  Jungian analytic theory was originally known as complex psychology.

14 July 2013

Showing Mercy

"The Good Samaritan" by Dinah Roe Kendall (b.1923).
Luke 10: 25-38

8th Sunday after Pentecost/ 14th July 2013

The Parable of the Good Samaritan—we know this text so well. Perhaps too well.  So well that it’s difficult to hear anything new. If this is true, then how do we hear something fresh in such a familiar text? How do we listen for the Word in the words when we’ve heard these words so many times before? 

We might hear something new, something fresh and relevant and life-giving if we realize and remember one thing: this isn’t an “example story” with a moral.[1] If you come away from this text thinking, “The Samaritan did a good deed, go and imitate,” then you haven’t heard the text.  If we believe that Jesus is essentially a teacher of morality, providing us with an ethic to follow, to imitate, then we’re not hearing the Gospel.  And, I would say, when this happens we’re very far from the Kingdom. 

            Yet how many sermons have we heard over the years, how many Church School lessons have held up the actions of the Samaritan as the ideal, as someone we should all emulate and aspire to be like?  I agree with David Henson who says we have made this text “into little more than a mushy morality tale about random acts of kindness to strangers….”[2] He insists that, “We have whitewashed this radical parable into a fantasy of the privileged and wealthy in which we believe Christ calls us only to apply bandages, throw money at the pain and injustice in the world, and trust it is enough.” Such a reading, he says, “justifies, but also glorifies drive-by charity as the pinnacle of Christ’s command to love thy neighbor.” [3]  I would add, these moralistic readings reduce the Christian life to moralism, they reduce the Gospel to essentially an ethic.  This approach is insidious, I believe, contributing to the decline of the Church in the West. It’s also a strategy used by the Church to get people to behave in a socially accepted manner, as a tool of conformity and convention. And society loves it when the Church sanctions convention and conformity.  Go to church and be nice to others – some think that’s what it means to be Christian. Well, it isn’t.

            This is not an “example story,” not a morality tale.  It’s a parable.  And Jesus was masterful in the use of them.  If we really hear the parable about the Samaritan it can’t be used by the religious to endorse convention. 

            Parables pack a punch.  Parables are supposed to generate an experience, touch us deeply, hit us in the gut, and knock us off our feet.  They are very similar to a Buddhist koan, designed to provoke, such as, “What face did you have before you were born?”  Parables make us think. They force us to wrestle.  They give us headaches and mess with the way we view the world.  They are intentionally disorienting, which is probably why we want to turn them into morality tales.  But then they wouldn’t shock us and they’re meant to shock. 

            The great American writer Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964), a Roman Catholic who lived and wrote in what she called the “Christ-haunted South,” that is, Protestant South, is known for her memorable characters and disturbing images.  Her short story “Revelation” is probably the single best description of the disturbing, unsettling, and transforming aspect of grace that I’ve ever read.[4]  O’Connor said, “You have to make your vision apparent by shock; to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind, you draw large and startling figures.” Her stories are hard, “but they are hard,” she said, “because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism.” [5]  In order for us to be properly oriented to reality, disorientation is necessary; disorientation is required for grace to break through, the kind of life-changing experience that enables us to be graceful, to show mercy.

            Why does Jesus share this parable? Because he’s being tested by the lawyer and the lawyer is trying to justify himself.  He’s not a lawyer in our sense of one today.  The law in question is not Roman law or civil law, but the Law, Torah, the Jewish Law, the Ten Commandments and all the other associated laws that go with it.  The Torah attorney knows the law; he’s an expert, a professional.  He knows it inside and out.  He knows what the text says and what it doesn’t say.  The lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher – Rabbi – what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Being a good teacher Jesus throws the question back at him, “What do you read there?” And he dutifully answers, because he knows the answer. “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart,…soul,…strength,…and mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”  Jesus tells him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”  The Rabbi asked his question, received an answer—sort of.  Jesus answered correctly—sort of. 

            So why did the lawyer not stop here?  Lawyers and trials, tests, testimonies and cross-examinations have filled the airwaves this week.  The Torah attorney should have known better, “asking a witness in open court without knowing in advance what the answer will be.”[6] The lawyer should have remained quiet, but he didn’t because he was beginning to see that Jesus wasn’t the one on trial—he was on trial.  The lawyer asked the question, but Jesus never really answered it.  He responded with a question and then affirmed the lawyer’s response and then Jesus finishes up, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”  Do you hear the shift?  You have given the right answer.  The lawyer senses this because then the text says, “But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’”  He goes on the defensive.

            That response—“And who is my neighbor?”—opens a window deep into the lawyer’s psyche.  The lawyer is not a bad man.  He’s smart, well educated, has a respectable profession.  He has standing and authority in his community.  He’s a religious person, a faithful worshipper of Yahweh.  He’s fairly conventional. He’s self-assured about his place in the world, his perspective on faith and society.  His world is clearly demarcated, divided up, neat, in order: he knows what’s holy and what’s profane, what’s Jewish and what’s Gentile, who is in and who is out, who is clean and who is impure.  And it’s obvious that his religious perspective helps to make sure that the dividing lines are solid and clear.  So why does the lawyer test Jesus?  Because he senses, correctly, that Jesus is messing with the status quo. A lot of Jesus’ ministry and actions are anything but conventional; they do not conform to values of the moral majority (often the majority isn’t moral). The guy has funny ideas.  On the surface Jesus’ response to the lawyer is very conventional, traditional in many respects.  Indeed, the lawyer looked to the tradition to make sure concepts such as “love God” and “love neighbor” remained fixed and stable, “a system of religious justification, and, like most of us, he had found a sweet spot in that religious system that allowed him to be satisfied with himself and his life.”[7]  The lawyer used his faith to justify the status quo. So that when the lawyer asked, “And who is my neighbor?” he probably expected Jesus to reinforce things as they are.  And that’s when Jesus unleashed this bombshell of a parable into his neatly ordered world.

            “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead….” You know the rest.  First a priest, a Jewish priest, a religious professional comes across him, sees the man in the road and intentionally walks on the opposite side in order to pass him.  A Levite, a religious lay associate, not a priest, comes along and he, too, avoids the man.  Neither wants to be bothered.  They also don’t want to risk contamination, because if he were unclean, a Gentile, then they would have to go through a process of purification.  And if he were dead, then they would have to go through an even lengthier process of purification.  They obviously feel that they have no obligation to him; he is not their neighbor.  But then a Samaritan comes along.

            We need to pause here to remember that by Jesus’ time Jews and Samaritans hated each other for a thousand years, a millennium of political rivalry, ethnic hostility, and religious bigotry seared into the psyche of this people.  They despised each other. 

            So this is the real shocker, the twist in the parable, that it’s this religious outsider, this unclean nobody—from the lawyer’s perspective—this untouchable, this nonhuman who comes near the man in the road.[8]  “And when he saw him,” Jesus tells us, “he was moved with pity.” The use of the word pity is a weak translation of the Greek, splagchnizomai, meaning to be moved in one’s gut.  It’s a gut-wrenching emotional response.  It’s a depth of feeling toward what he encounters along the road.  It’s not reason or thinking that moves him to action, it’s feeling that moves him to action.  With little thought he goes to the man in the street and risks contamination by touching him and caring for his wounds, pouring oil and wine.  He puts him on his own animal, potentially contaminating his animal.  The Samaritan provides lodging for him.  Gives the innkeeper plenty of money to care for him (two days’ worth of salary)—trusts the innkeeper, who’s under no obligation to him. “Take care of him…,” he says, and when I return, if you need more money, I’ll give it to you then.  “Which of these three, do you think was a neighbor…?”  The lawyer gets the point, although did you notice that he can’t even bring himself to say Samaritan, an unclean word? He simply says, “The one who shows him mercy.” Go and do likewise.

            Can you see why this isn’t an example story or a morality tale?  Can you see that it’s not really about the Samaritan?  It’s not about imitating the Samaritan. Our focus needs be upon the lawyer, the one who hears such a disturbing and morally offensive story such as this.  Focusing on the lawyer helps us to see that at some level we are all just like this lawyer, intent on justifying ourselves.  We’re on trial.

            Tom Long is one of the best preachers and writers about preaching in the church today.  His sermons and his analysis of any text are stunning.  He teaches at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. I’m grateful I had the opportunity to study preaching with him when I was a student at Princeton Seminary.  This week I read his take on Luke 10, which, when I was finished, left me breathless.  I was tempted to just read his essay instead of write my own sermon this week.  In fact, Tom’s sermons are often plagiarized.  I once heard Tom tell the story of the time he visited a church one morning.  On his way out after worship he greeted the pastor and said, “Good sermon.” The preacher was flattered and said, “Why, thank you.”  To which Tom said, “I should know. I wrote it.”

            Tom really opened up the text for me, especially the way he helped me to see that this text is really about the lawyer.  Again, the lawyer’s not a bad man; he’s a pretty conventional fellow, he probably looked very Presbyterian (except that he was Jewish, but you know what I mean).  And yet Jesus is very hard on him because this is a blistering parable to have to hear.  Luke says that the lawyer “stood up to test Jesus,” stood up and blocked Jesus’ path on his way to fulfill his calling in Jerusalem.  Jesus knows that convention often stands in the way of the Gospel.  Very often it’s not the people on the left or the right that hamper God’s movement in the world, but the people in the broad middle, who stand behind convention and religious respectability.[9]  With the telling of the parable, Tom suggests, Jesus actually throws the lawyer into the ditch beside the Jericho road.  It’s a striking contrast.  Luke says, “Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus,” and then Jesus offers a parable with someone thrown to the ground.  The victim left for dead in the parable is the lawyer.  Tom says, Jesus “is not doing violence to him; he is, instead, using a parable to disclose the man’s true condition.  He is showing that this lawyer, who thought he had a righteous place to stand, has nowhere to stand in his own strength but is in fact, like all the rest of us, lying face down and naked by the highway.  The lawyer wanted to be seen as already righteous, but Jesus showed instead that he was simply a member of the human race, in desperate need of rescue.  Jesus undermines the lawyer’s standing in order to show that the lawyer, like all the rest of humanity, needs not to stand his ground but to see the face of grace, and then to move [with Jesus], to repent.”[10]  We need to be rescued by a Samaritan.  This is what grace looks like.  It looks like a man who wants to “justify himself” but is instead rescued from distress by the face of Jesus Christ.  Shockingly, Jesus is the Samaritan. The work and witness of Jesus is like the despised, unwanted Samaritan who comes with compassion to save us.

            And that’s why in the telling of this parable, “Jesus ironically gave the lawyer a great gift, a work of kindness, even though the lawyer may not have thought so.”  Jesus invited “the lawyer to see himself in a new way, to see himself not as one who stands at a distance and defines the term ‘neighbor’ objectively, but as someone who might himself need to be neighbored—as a wounded traveler in need of rescue.”[11]

            “The real answer to the lawyer’s question ‘who is my neighbor?’ is that you have no idea who your neighbor is until you, yourself, know how needy you are, and in that need receive the unexpected grace of being neighbored by God.”[12]  Acknowledging our neediness….  Most of us don’t want to admit this.  This kind of confession requires help.  But the truth is: we are all needy.  Everyone of us.  It’s only when we stop trying to justify ourselves, acknowledge our need, embrace our woundedness, allow our wounds to be tended by God are we then able to have compassion toward our neighbor, extending real mercy and grace.  This way of life is more than simply being nice to others.  It means tending to the wounds of the people we meet along life’s way, it means even entering into their wounds, whoever they are, even if they’re “Samaritans.” It means tending to the wounds of the men, women, and children who now sit beside you, one to the other, showing mercy, having compassion.

            And do you know what?  When this happens—and every time it happens—you discover that you’ve, somehow, stumbled, even fallen into the Kingdom of God.

[1] As I share later in the sermon, I am indebted to Thomas G. Long’s reflection on this text, “The Lawyer’s Second Question.”  Long’s insights are infused throughout the sermon.
[2] David Henson’s remarks continue, “…that, at its worst buttresses the damaging and pervasive charity industrial complex in American churches.”
[4]“Revelation” is included in O’Connor’s collection of short stories Everything That Rises Must Converge (1965).  It can be read online at various websites, including this one.
[5] Flannery O’Connor, “The Fiction Writer and His Country,” Mystery and Manners. 
[6] Long.
[7] Long.
[8] The use of the word untouchable came to mind in light of my recent trip to India, specifically learning about Dalit theology.  
[9] This was precisely Martin Luther King, Jr.’s (1926-1968) claim in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (April 16, 1963), addressed to the religious leaders of the community.
[10] Long.
[11] Long.
[12] Long.