Have you ever walked into a room and then stood there, wondering what you’d gone in to do?
Have you ever started driving to a particular destination and then wound up someplace completely different than you’d intended?
Or how about this—you went to the grocery and got all kinds of great things—but forgot the one thing on the list you really needed.
For the most part, these kinds of experiences are just a part of being human, your average garden-variety forgetfulness. It happens because our minds are so full and swirling that simple, practical things can get lost. But it’s also possible that we got distracted—something else caught our attention—and we forgot what we were doing and what we hoped to accomplish.
The title of the message today, “SQUIRREL!!” comes from the animated movie Up—it’s one of my favorites. On their journey, the main characters—an elderly widower and a young boy–meet a dog who says, “My name is Dug. I have just met you and I love you. My good and smart master made me this collar so that I can talk…SQUIRREL!!” Over and over again Dug’s train of thought gets derailed throughout the movie. We get a funny look into Dug’s inner life as we watch him get continually distracted by the squirrels that cross his path.
Getting distracted is a common human experience, and our attention may be captured by different types of things. We might feel worried about the headlines—Twitter has been a big distraction for me this week—or perhaps we feel anxiety about something new we’re planning to do. We might get distracted by a new symptom that is concerning us or find ourselves going over and over an uncomfortable conversation we had with someone.
Or course we can get distracted by good and happy things too—and in our culture today you don’t have to look far to see people filling their time with things like Nascar and gardening (guilty!) and music and other forms of entertainment. Early Friends would no doubt say these are all frivolous activities that distract us from being in a spirit of worshipful prayer. Anything that takes our eyes off God might qualify as a distraction.
What inspired me to consider this message this week was the idea that the outer world continually clamors for our attention, offering a million and one distractions. If we’re mindful of it, we can avoid getting caught up in it and losing sight of what’s most important in our days and in our lives. If we follow the distraction unchallenged, we’ll forget to listen quietly for the still small voice within, the voice of Christ that tells us what’s true about the world, what’s true about us, what’s true about God.
In our Old Testament reading today, we heard from the book of Deuteronomy, which represents the final sermons of Moses. After 40 years in the wilderness, Moses is now writing to the second generation of Israelites, and he wants them to understand how to keep the most important ideas of the faith central to their lives and practice. Richard Foster says that in Deuteronomy, Moses is telling the younger generation, “Don’t behave like your parents did in the wilderness. Obey God and live well in the land.”
Moses wanted to call attention to what was most important, what he most wanted the younger generation to remember—“ Love the Lord with everything you’ve got—your heart, soul, and strength.” And not only did he tell them what was most important, he tells them how to stay focused on it: Keep it on your hearts, he said. Tell your children. Talk about them when you’re at home, when you’re out walking, when you lie down and when you get up. He also urged them to make these goals tangible, physical. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads, write them on your doorframes and gates.
Isn’t that interesting? Moses wanted these ideas to be more than words. He suggested that we are to live them out in our daily lives—with the emotions of our hearts, the awareness of our souls, and the strength of our bodies. He wanted us to have these ideas in our environment and on our person—like a note pinned to the jacket of a Kindergartener or post-it notes on the mirror to remind us of things we don’t want to forget.
See, even Moses knew—we get distracted. A few weeks ago, when we talked about how angry Moses was when he came down from the mountain with the first set of stone tablets. He discovered the children of Israel, dancing and worshipping a golden calf. While Moses had been up talking with God, the people had gotten distracted and forgotten about their relationship with the divine.
Centuries later, Jesus would remind us of these same ideas, when he answers the question about which is the greatest commandment. He mirrors what Moses said in Deuteronomy—Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind—and adds an important second part: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” He even went so far as to say that these two commandments sum up all the teaching offered in the Old Testament. I’m sure that outraged the Pharisees, who were trying to test Jesus and catch him in blasphemy. With all their education and status, it must have been an affront to hear this poor teacher say that living a faithful life was simple enough that anyone—tax collectors, prostitutes, fishermen, widows—anyone could do it.
Moses and Jesus did make it sound simple and clear—but I have a feeling that most of us here today would agree that living it out on a day to day basis is not easy. What makes it so hard? We get distracted.
We may be going along fairly well, feeling peaceful and connected to God, grateful for our blessings and feeling like we’re doing an okay job sharing our light with the world—when something invariably hijacks our attention. Maybe we see a shiny object. Or we sense something that feel like risk. Our emotions—all emotions, but especially the ones that upset us or make us afraid—can cause us to lose our focus and get swept up in the emotion of the thing that distracted us. Sometimes we don’t even notice we’re been derailed until we’re quite a way down the track.
The Power & Blessing of Our Attention
God has given us a simple, elegant ability to help us find our way back to those two most important things—loving God with all we’ve got and loving each other as we love ourselves. It is the power of attention. Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase that Whatever we pay attention to, grows. I think it’s true and I have seen evidence of it at work in my own life.
When I am looking out at the world with kind eyes, when I am paying attention to feeling peaceful inside, I see more and more evidence of a peaceful and kind world. When I am feeling out of sorts or struggling or worried, I go out into my day and see evidence of a world that is grumpy and pushy and cold. I’m not sure whether it’s the world that really is that way or I’m just seeing the effects of looking out through my own emotional filter in those moments.
Either way, I’d discovered a few things to watch for that help me bring my heart, mind, soul, and strength back to God when I get distracted:
- First, feeling heightened emotion is a clue that there’s something going on with me. Especially if I’m feeling fear, anxiety, or upset, or my stomach is in knots, I recognize it as a symptom that my heart is struggling. I’m not in that moment feeling connected to and cared for by God. The remedy is to recognize the struggle, ask God to give me peace and help me listen for guidance and reassurance.
- A sense of urgency or over-focus is another clue. If I’m feeling like I just can’t turn off the news or I’m checking the headlines every 20 minutes, it probably means I’m feeling anxious, worried, and maybe unsafe—my mind is whirling with risk and outrage and confusion. That is the opposite of feeling cared for, protected, and guided by a loving God. The antidote for this one for me is to remember who God is and remind myself of God’s qualities as parent, protector, guide, and friend. I pray to experience God as ever-present and all-knowing, remembering that God loves us all and wants only good for us. And God has the divine idea in mind for every situation, no matter how dark things may look to us in any given moment. We see through a mirror darkly, but God knows just what’s needed and how it all fits together.
- I know something’s up if my gratitude is gone. If I’m really worried or preoccupied with something, I don’t feel my soul in the same way—I don’t experience the sense of awe and peace I feel when I’m out in nature, working in the garden, or driving through the countryside. When I’m feeling connected, gratitude just spills over naturally, and if it isn’t present, I must be forgetting God. When this happens I typically stop whatever I’m doing and begin naming things I’m grateful for, no matter how small the things might be. As the list grows—and the list always grows—my peace and gratitude returns.
- My body is trying to tell me something. Some of us notice discomfort in our bodies before we notice discomfort in our minds. I may notice pain in my neck or my shoulders, maybe a headache, perhaps a feeling of heaviness or exhaustion. I get curious about my thinking patterns over the last several hours. Am I feeling like everything depends on me? Am I relying on God for my strength? Have I invited God into whatever it is that’s worrying me so much? When I’m hurting or uncomfortable I try to turn toward the symptom with kindness and gentleness, asking ‘What do I need right now?’ and praying to understand what God would have me know through those symptoms or situation.
I think Moses and Jesus both knew that distractibility is part of human nature, and perhaps the flipside of having creative, imaginative minds. They told us what is worthwhile in this life to focus on and they even gave us suggestions for how to come back to peace, in our hearts, minds, souls, and spirits.
Whether we get distracted by our own mental and emotional squirrels only rarely or a hundred times a day, the important thing is that we come back to what’s true, what’s real, what’s constant– about God, and by extension, about us. There is that of God within us. Our work is simply to love—to love God, to love each other, to love ourselves, to love our surroundings, to bring love to whatever crosses our path. We are shining it. We are being it.
Even though we get distracted and hijacked into the worries of the world for a while, we are still the place where God shines through, circumstance by circumstance. As we continue to let love draw us back to what’s most important in life, we get a clearer picture of the reachable presence of the kingdom of God, right here, right now, untouched and undimmed by the shiny things of this world.
And all the rest of it—all the rest of it—is distraction.
Thank you, Friends.
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