By Clint Wilson
Perhaps you heard about the two-year-old boy who went missing earlier this year — the parents were terrified; the police were alerted. But the little guy wasn’t actually in danger, he just decided that he wanted to go to the fair near his house. So, he hopped on his battery-powered rideable John Deere tractor toy, drove it down his driveway and along the sidewalk to the back entrance of the festivities, parking it next to the Tilt-a-Whirl. After the frantic call and hurried search, the sheriff’s office reported, “He was reunited with Dad, who promptly suspended his son’s license… simply by removing the battery from his tractor toy.”
It is amazing what you can do when you have your eyes set on something you want. That is, when you are focused… and undistracted.
Of course, recently our country celebrated the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, another example of what we can do when we set our minds on a goal with singular focus and determination.
It was at Rice University on Sep 12, 1962, when John F. Kennedy stated, “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade, and do the other things. Not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” It was a mere seven years later that we achieved this incredible “leap for mankind,” against amazing odds and difficulties.
But one of the chief difficulties of our age, it seems, is not that we have a shortage of problems upon which to set our sights, but a lack of focus and a divided republic. We are all too happy to be distracted by lesser goods, as we are numbed to reality by our phones, our shopping, and more. We are more distracted and frenetic than at any point in living memory, if not longer. Which raises what I think is one of the most important questions of our age, at least for Christian disciples: How are we to follow Jesus in an age of distraction?
I think the story of Mary & Martha in Luke 10:38-42 demonstrates that the answer does not start with us, but rather with turning our eyes in the right direction.
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Mary had to know that this meal was significant, occurring as it did during the Feast of the Tabernacles. This was a festive meal, and it wouldn’t launch without her help. I don’t know about you, but it is so easy for me to identify with Martha. Mary, though, had discovered another feast, which is found in Christ alone. Having found it, how could she settle for anything else?
Now it might be helpful to recall the man possessed by demons in Gerasene, whom we also hear about earlier in Luke (8:26-29). After his healing, he like Mary, was found sitting at the feet of Jesus, only to have Jesus tell him not to stay, but to go, returning to his home and to bear witness to Jesus.
So what is with the mixed message from Jesus? Luke’s point does not seem to be that the life of contemplation is de facto superior to the life of action. Christians have made the mistake of elevating one over the other throughout Church history. No, the point seems to be one of learning over time to not be distracted from Jesus, no matter what he calls us to do.
At points, obedience might look like going and doing, and bearing witness to him as we do so. At other points, obedience might look like learning to be still at his feet, and saying No to those manifold distractions that beckon us away from feasting on him. But either way, we cannot properly love the stranger if we have not learned how to adore Christ — in prayer, in silence, in study of Scripture, in worship, in everything. The lives we truly want at the core of our hearts will never launch, if our daily launchpad is anything other than Jesus.
This challenges conventional thinking about Jesus. Jesus is not just a moral exemplar, a really good human — such that if we muster up lives that look like his, then we’ll be ok. No, Jesus is not merely our model, he is our savior. He is the image of the invisible God who deserves our praise — not because he needs it, but because we will never know the fully human life if we do not direct our gaze to him.
We must learn that Christ alone can satisfy the desires of our hearts (no amount of work will ever do this, despite the temptation to live like Martha). In an age of near infinite distractions, we must learn — again, and again — to look to him in whom all things hold together. If we do not, our distracted days will lead to distracted lives, and the words of W. B. Yeats will grow true of us:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…
The problem with distractions is that we cannot cultivate a contemplative life — one established securely in Christ, like Mary — if we are not present to the world as it is right in front of us. If I am always itching to be in an idealized world that more nearly matches my own desires, then I simply reinforce what is going on internally, and I don’t have a relationship to external realities in my immediate surroundings. Distractions play into our unsettled hearts, and a restless and relentless extension of superficially new experiences will stunt our maturation and mire us in a kind of perpetual childishness. We see this in constant moving around, in workaholism, in an inability to have meaningful relationships, and especially, in the need to constantly have new things (in other words, in distraction).
This is why Paul calls us to be centered on Christ, the head of the body — he alone can satisfy. Truly, Christ in you is the hope of glory (Col. 1:27). But like in another Mary who would bear him into the world, room must be made in the womb of our hearts before a new reality will be birthed in our lives. Our days will be well-lived if we have learned to say No to the various distractions in order to say Yes to Jesus.
So, to misquote President John F. Kennedy, “We choose to go to Jesus. Not because the challenges are easy, but because they are hard.” They are hard in that they might involve suffering, even if it is merely self-inflicted as we deny ourselves certain things, even good things. But we must learn to know the voice of our master by sitting at his feet in adoration; in doing so, we learn to love him — not as a recipient of our doings, but as an object of our longings, and in fact, their only satisfaction.
Fr. Clint Wilson is associate rector for Christian faith and formation at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Nashville, and serves as the ecumenical officer for the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee.