My eight-year-old daughter and I share a fault: we are both easily distracted. While on her way to washing her hands, it’s not unusual for her to get interested in something she passes along the way to the bathroom. She pauses, engages, and forgets to wash her hands. Her curiosity and wonder often account for her distracted-ness.
The reason behind my ability to be distracted is far less honorable. I’ll attribute it to a plain ol’ lack of self-discipline. Supposed to be working? Well, I’ll just check my email real quick. Trying to read while the T.V. or radio is on? Can’t do it. Tidying up the house? My husband calls my approach the “Zen method” of housecleaning, meaning that there is no easily discernible pattern to it. I pick up something in one room and take it to another room to put it away. While in that room I find something else that needs to be tidied or cleaned. Then I stroll to another room to get some cleaning supplies, and there I’m distracted from my task by something that needs to be picked up in that room. I don’t attack one room at a time. Rather, after a while, the whole house is straightened. My approach is shaped by the distractions I find hard to resist.
I walked a labyrinth for the first time a few years ago at a conference for Christian leaders. That particular labyrinth included stations with tactile activities to foster reflection. On the table of one station I found a map with a compass on it. Also on the map were some small magnets. I was to move the magnets around the compass and watch how they pulled the needle from “true north” to “false north.” The question for meditation was, “What distractions in your life are pulling you away from God, the true north?” It was a transformative question for me. My answers were not tasks but attitudes.
When Jesus comes to the home of Mary and Martha, Mary sits at his feet while Martha busily cleans, prepares food, and sets the table. Harried, she begs Jesus to tell her sister to help, now. Jesus tells her, “Martha, you are distracted by many things. There is need of only one thing.”
To be sure, certain tasks or pursuits in our lives may distract us from sitting at the feet of God. But what are the more pervasive distractions? Vanity? Greed? Perfectionism? Guilt? Worry? These things can distract any follower of Christ away from the true north by consuming our thoughts, time, or energy.
Likewise, churches can be distracted by many things. We may put our time or energy into things that Christ does not consider to be crucial for a relationship with him. Fear of one another or lack of trust in one another may also be things that distract a congregation from following Christ.
It takes faithful and patient discernment among brothers and sisters to identify what may distract us, personally or corporately, from sitting at the feet of Christ and basking in his presence. When we come to realize, however, that we can discard these things, then like Mary, we will have chosen the better portion which can never be taken away from us.
Jenny Williams is pastor of Wesley United Methodist Church in Kingwood, West Virginia.