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Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ Holy Focus: Distraction

Let’s just say I know a thing or two about distraction.

In the past 12 months, three of our four family members were stricken with flu on Christmas Day, we celebrated our childrens’ first and fourth birthdays, we went on a two-week multi-state road trip visiting family and friends with said small children, my husband suffered chronic migraines so far untouched by most medications, two close family members underwent life crises, I underwent a major medication change which took several months of adjustment, three different job opportunities surfaced simultaneously, I changed jobs and we moved, our house was broken into, our house hosted “rodent invasion 2014” (imagine the sound of Gollum scratching in your wall attempting to get out), I managed two ER visits (crashing headlong into a dresser; sustaining a bizarre medication reaction), my Grandmother almost passed away and the doctor deemed her a “miracle” several times, the kids grew so tall the four-year-old can open the freezer and the one-year-old can rip a cabinet door off its hinges with her frenetic shenanigans.

And a partridge in a pear tree.

I should note this year follows on the heels of several similar ones.

You say “focus,” I laugh manically in your face.

Hey Joseph, focus.

You’re engaged, you’re establishing yourself as a sufficient man, and your fiancée appears claiming a vision and a “miraculous” pregnancy.

How difficult did Joseph find it to concentrate on his work for several days, until he received his own surprising vision?

Hey Mary, focus.

You’re engaged, you’re a model citizen, you care about community and family and friends, and then you’re scared out of your comfortable day-to-day wits by a bizarre, otherworldly creature (you’ve never seen any Michael Bay special effects). Aside from the appearance of, for lack of a better word, this heavenly alien, the being brings an uncomfortable message: surprise! You’re going to be pregnant soon, and not because the wedding date has been moved up. And you’re going to be pregnant with a being the likes of which you can’t imagine. Your parents are not likely to believe your story.

How difficult did Mary find it to concentrate for several days? How did she rehearse the conversation in her head?

“Um…Mom? Can I talk to you about something?”

“How are we going to break this to your father?!”

What does holy focus look like in a life of distractions? Despite saturation in productivity best practices, how might we winnow out what actually is urgent in our lives of faith?

Learning which distractions to ignore and which distractions to follow

Holy focus requires we learn which distractions to ignore and which distractions to follow. Consider the shepherds, who allowed themselves to be distracted from their important and pressing job of caring for animals – guarding a valuable asset in the middle of the night.

Abandoning your night shift to search for a newborn baby because you trade you choose to listen to a flock of angels instead of your flock of sheep? Someone’s going to be angry in the morning. From the outside looking in, at best it looks irresponsible and immature. Yet millions of people place tiny figurines of these shepherds on their mantelpieces every winter; millions of children dress up to imitate them.

Here you are, trying to teach your children values of discipline, responsibility and hard work, and a choir director hands you small wooden staffs and cotton ball beards and tells you Junior is going to portray someone who leaves his shift on a vision quest.

How much more difficult to teach our children discipline, responsibility, hard work – and the holy focus that pays attention to the voice of God, which sometimes comes in the form of a distraction.

And consider grown-up Jesus, who, Scripture tells us, “had to go through Samaria.” What an odd distraction that must have seemed to the disciples. And what of Jesus dragging his feet, waiting to go to Lazarus’ family, seemingly distracted or unfocused on the crisis at hand? “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

In the middle of life – car repairs and cancelled trips, cancer test results and job changes, crises and half-finished projects – what is truly urgent, and what is only a red herring? Holy focus slowly grows out of maneuvering from one situation to a next, feeling out the tempo of the Holy Spirit and recognizing the holy even when a child is vomiting on the floor, someone is screeching their brakes before rear-ending you, and your daughter is beginning a conversation with, “um, Mom?…can I talk to you about something?”

And ministers – we can’t delegate “distractions” to our ministry spouses so that we can focus on the “important” work of ministry. Holy focus and unholy distractions are found in all arenas of life – family as well as church.

Learning how to live with distraction fatigue

Holy focus demands that we learn how to live with distraction fatigue.

I’m not referring to the mental haze that comes with social networking distractions or the splintered concentration that results from checking the news online five times a day.

Distraction fatigue is closely related to decision fatigue (because distractions so often require decisions – a flat tire means deciding whether to replace one or all tires; a job loss requires multiple decisions; so on). Learning to live with distraction fatigue involves a great deal of resilience. When you are hammered with distraction and decision fatigue, emotions become blunted; exhaustion sinks in; critical thinking ebbs; survival mode kicks in.

If you’ve had an ailing parent you’ve cared for or placed in long-term care, you likely know exactly what I’m describing. If you’ve been through the dark night of the soul, you recognize this description.

A hard year, a hard few years, leaves you craving stability. Just let everything be normal long enough to catch my breath, you pray.

How do you live out holy focus in this state? In the unspoken gap between Mary’s encounter with the angel, Joseph doubting her, and her arrival at Elizabeth’s house? (It’s pretty obvious she was sent away quietly, away from gossiping neighbors and smirks. On top of morning sickness and mood swings, she endured loss of reputation, bearing blame with no wrongdoing. What an exhausting time it must have been.)

I remember a time a few years back when I wrestled with my perception of how my spiritual disciplines had changed because of a season of exhaustion. I described the feeling to a friend: “it’s like I look at my Bible and don’t have the energy to read it for myself, like in an old movie when a sick person can’t feed themselves a bowl of soup and it has to be spooned into their mouth.”

Holy focus doesn’t require keeping your practices the same. There is benefit in the Word read, yes – but also the Word heard.

It was at that time I realized how much corporate practices meant to me. Go and receive. Let someone else do the thinking. In the best, fullest sense, put your spiritual renewal on auto-pilot: let others carry you for a while (counterintuitive to a Protestant, highly individualized conception of spiritual growth).

If you need a place to go to be fed – even if you can’t get out of bed, from disability or the flu or depression or newborn baby-exhaustion – hear the Word beautifully preached here:

Learning Which Distractions Lead to Creation

There are distractions which lead to creation (as a happily married couple will tell you). Holy focus is not the same as workaholism. Holy focus is not a sanctified version of being task-oriented.

Holy focus revels in concentration on truth, goodness, and, yes, beauty. Holy focus relishes imitating the Creator by creating. There is nothing iconoclastic about holy focus, shunning the “trivial” in favor of the “urgent.”

A lenient innkeeper allowed something about the couple in front of him to capture his heart or his imagination, even if the route went through his pocketbook. That guy’s stable (cave, wooden structure, whatever) made history. He never witnessed the birth of the universe, but his stable hosted the birth of the Messiah. An innkeeper’s life is a busy life, especially during a town-wide homecoming, but this additional distraction – latecomers to an inn already crammed full – proved iconically beautiful.

Productivity can lack holy focus, and seemingly aimless leisure or enjoyment can produce it.

The shepherds burst into worship when they allowed themselves to be distracted. Wise men traveled epic distances in pursuit of an esoteric distraction (their stargazing wasn’t wasted).

May you glimpse the eternal today – even if it comes clothed as a distraction.