Posted by: Philip Rushton | July 27, 2011

Reducing Our Weapons of Mass Distraction

On Monday night we talked about the problem of spiritual distraction. Looking at the story of Mary and Martha Luke 10, we considered how easy it is for us to get caught up in the tasks of the day that we forget to sit at the feet of Jesus. While Jesus certainly calls us to be active and engaged in our world, he reminds us that we need to prioritize prayer and devotion. It is interesting that the story preceding that of Mary and Martha is the story of the good Samaritan. The first story seems to prioritize sacrificial service, while the second story seems to prioritize contemplation. One commentator sums up the juxtaposition of these stories like this: “If we were to ask Jesus which example applies to us, the Samaritan or Mary, his answer would probably be yes.” The goal, I think, is for us to find a balance between action and contemplation.

Yet, many of us, I think, find it hard to make time for contemplation or devotion. The demands of work and family, combined with the lure of passive entertainment and instant information, easily crowd out the voice of God. Add to the mix the numerous “weapons of mass distraction” that we carry around with us (smart phones, laptops, ipads), and you have a recipe for a chaotic, distracted spiritual life.

In response to this we looked at three ways that we can be more intentional in creating space to be with God. We considered being more intentional with our schedule by carving out set times for prayer. This was the model of the early church. In Acts 3:1 we see that the early believers had a set time for daily prayers. We also considered how we could be more intentional about structuring our prayers. We looked at the Lord’s Prayer as a model for guided prayer (see previous post for more insight into this). Lastly, we considered how we could be more intentional about expanding our attention span.

One of the problems with our digital age is that it is creating rhythms in our life that prevent us being able to be still before God. In David Ulin’s book The Lost Art of Reading — Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time, he notices that he is much more distracted then he used to be. He writes, “I became aware, in an apartment full of books, that I could no longer find within myself the quiet necessary to read.” He continues, “What I’m struggling with, is the encroachment of the buzz, the sense that there’s something out there that merits my attention, when in fact it’s mostly a series of disconnected riffs, quick takes and fragments, that add up to the anxiety of the age.”

So one of the things we need to do, if we hope to develop a more intentional spiritual life, is to confront these rhythms we’ve inherited from our modern age. Before we can even considering having a meaningful prayer life we need to be able to actually sit still. We need to become people that can actually contain spiritual truth. Good theological and spiritual content will go to waste if we have no way to contain it!

That is why one of the most healthy things we can do for our spiritual life might be to read a good book. Journalist Johann Hari writes, “Reading is an act of resistance in a landscape of distraction… It requires us to pace ourselves. It returns us to a reckoning with time. In the midst of a book, we have no choice but to be patient, to take each thing in its moment, to let the narrative prevail. We regain the world by withdrawing from it just a little, by stepping back from the noise.”

What are some ways we can be more intentional in spending time with the spiritual disciplines this week?

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Responses

  1. This is a topic I’ve been thinking about lately myself. You would think that with technology “streamlining” everything we would have more time to complete the tasks that are meaningful, and yet it seems as though technology creates more distractions!
    Thanks for your insight, Phil! I always enjoy your blog entries.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts Matt. It is a bit of an irony that these devices meant to make things easier actually clutter our lives.

    It’s probably also ironic that I published this post about technological distraction on a blog and sent the link through facebook 🙂

    p.s. I do have your Cranfield commentary on Mark. I’ll try and remember it next time we come up your way.

    Hope things are well!

    • I think there is book potential here! With your thoughts on liturgy and your blog entry on Taize, combined with your observations on media distractions and fragmented thoughts, you could easily write 100+ pages on this. You could have the fragmented/sensory side, versus the structured/devotion/meditative side.

      You should review some of your entries and start piecing together some chapters!

      • Hey Matt,

        Thanks for the encouragement. Maybe one day! Sometimes I feel like I’d love to work towards writing books, other days I feel like the last thing this world needs is another book. We now encounter more information in a daily issue of the New York times then we would in a lifetime if we lived just a few centuries ago. I can’t even begin to keep up with all the great books that are being published. For now I’m enjoying reading and mediating some of the ideas I come across to others.

  3. Well said, Phil. Sounds like a fascinating and very necessary conversation. Thanks for the reminder of the importance of confronting and reorienting our inherited rhythms.

    • Thanks for you thoughts Ryan. And now to actually make some changes. I think I have the theory down, but the prospect of going against the grain of culture in this respect is daunting. I’m having a particularly distracted day today!

      • Yes, to make the changes… That is the thing. I know well of the days you speak of 🙂

  4. You’re definitely putting your finger on the challenge; to focus on “the necessary” thing in spite of, as Ulin says, “the sense that there’s something out there that merits my attention.” I’ve lived long enough to be quite aware how things have changed. When the mail and the newspaper came once a day and that hour had passed, and when the phone would ring already if there was something urgent or required and it wasn’t ringing so all was well, one could simply inhabit one’s focus in a different way. — I like your three ways of being more intentional. Helpful. — One I would add is some kind of intentional Sabbath-keeping. I’ve often practiced this badly and sometimes practiced it well over the years, and when well, it’s quite powerful in its effect. The meaning of Sabbath-keeping also seems to change as the challenges require. I believe that for me now the practice of it must involve shutting off (or not even turning on) the weapons of distraction or “connectivity,” chiefly my computer/IPAD.

    • Thanks Dora,

      I’d agree that Sabbath keeping would be a good addition. Recently read part of Abraham Hetchel’s writings on sabbath. He suggests that practicing Sabbath teaches us to covet time. Or as David Goetz summarizes, the Sabbath, “teaches us to fall in love with time again.” By slowing down we no longer see time as something to control and manage, we instead learn to enjoy the gift of time.

  5. For me the key word is intentional. Being made aware again of my connectedness to distractions (particularly TV) has made it easier to make time/have time for scripture and prayer. It sure helps to be in community with others talking about it, working on it, and struggling with making time for spiritual disciplines and to create rhythms that will cause us grow in faith.


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