The last thing I do before I leave the sacristy to begin a service is to check my cell phone to make sure it’s turned off. Cell phones are a wonderful form of communication, that give us access to all kinds of information anywhere in the world. But they are also a major source of distraction for us. It turns out (I looked this up on the internet) that the average 40-something user looks at their phone 35 times a day, and the average 20-something looks 75 times a day. The latest iPhone operating system tells you every week how much screen time you had on average. Last week mine was 2 hours per day. Wow. My excuse is that I was following the World Series a lot last week.
Human beings are highly distractible creatures. We take in all kinds of sensory input – visual, auditory, touch – and our minds are active all the time. It helps make us the creative, imaginative creatures we are. But we can also be overwhelmed by everything around us. We know how critical it is, in work or in relationships or at church, to be able to focus on the main thing and not get bogged down in distractions, but it’s hard to do. If I ask you NOT to think about elephants for 15 seconds [pause] you just can’t do it. Your brain is telling you, “Don’t think about elephants! Don’t think about elephants!” It doesn’t work.
So we have to find ways to manage distractions so we can focus on what’s most important. Any teacher can tell you that highly distractible students need to find techniques to help them focus. For some it turns out that doodling actually helps them concentrate on what’s happening in class – which seems counter-intuitive. Others become adept at twirling their pencils in their fingers, which may be a distraction for the teacher but helps the student pay attention.
It’s not just students. We all have to find ways to manage the myriad of distractions that bombard us constantly. Across spiritual traditions, people have developed techniques of prayer and meditation that allow them to focus on the divine. Finding a quiet place away from daily activity, concentrating on one’s breathing, using a short repetitive phrase, walking slowly and mindfully – these are all ways of managing distractions and training ourselves to focus better.
Distractions surround us even in church. How often have I, sitting in the pew, come to the end of listening to a lesson and realized I remember nothing about it. Our attention inevitably wanders. “What a cute baby.” “I love the flowers on the altar – I wonder what kind they are.” “This music has too many notes.” “I wish that guy would stop coughing.” And in our church community life it’s the same thing – it’s easy to get bogged down in relatively small things and lose sight of the main thing, which is being the presence of Christ in the world.
Okay, so what does all this have to do with the gospel lesson this morning. The story of Bartimaeus is a perfect little allegory of how we come to faith in Jesus. Bartimaeus is blind – blindness is often used in the scriptures as a metaphor for not seeing or understanding God, of being blind to truth. He calls out to Jesus for mercy – the first step in faith is the appeal for help. Jesus responds by calling him to come and then asking what he wants. So faith involves movement towards Jesus and asking for what we need. Jesus restores his sight – he is able to see the truth and can go on his way.
It’s a beautiful story, but I want to consider it from a different perspective. What if it’s actually Bartimaeus’s blindness that allows him to focus on Jesus? Imagine the scene: it’s a crowded main road, with people doing business, going to market, people having conversations, children and dogs running around. Into the midst of this comes Jesus with his small band of followers. Perhaps people give him a look, but then they turn back to whatever they’re engaged in and let Jesus pass by. But Bartimaeus has no such distractions. He hears Jesus coming and is totally focused on him. When he hears Jesus’ voice among all the other voices, he goes straight to it. So in this case faith comes from not being distracted and focusing on the main thing. Not being sighted helps lead to faith. I’m reminded of the passage from the Letter to the Hebrews, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (11:1)
To be able to do God’s work in the world we need to be able to put aside distractions and focus on the main thing. I think about that in the context of our parish planning about how to develop the church campus. To do this brings up all kinds of issues and problems – many of them important to different individuals. “How many bathrooms will there be?” “What about parking?” “How big will the stove in the kitchen be?” “What about air-conditioning?” But as important as all these may be, they are not the main thing. So we need to learn to develop the discipline of always coming back to the main thing, which is, how can we develop the campus so as to be the presence of Christ in this city, in the world?
It’s not easy to see God in the midst of the world. I think it’s a little like trying to tune into a radio station in the car in a remote area. There’s a lot of static and competing signals, and you have to adjust the tuning very carefully to finally zero in to hear the station you want. The world is full of noise. Tuning in to God requires focus and concentration, and it requires the discipline to be able to manage all the distractions of everyday life, in order to hear that “still, small” voice.