Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 Ash Wednesday March 6, 2019
What distracts you from God? Don’t be hard on yourself because you are! Ron Rolheiser writes, “To be a human being is to be perpetually distracted. We aren’t persons who live in habitual spiritual awareness who occasionally get distracted. We’re persons who live in habitual distraction who occasionally become spiritually aware.”
What distracts you from God? How might you contend against that and resist that, because it leads us away from love of God and neighbor?
In a few minutes, Pastor Griffin will read these liturgical words inviting you to observe Lent: “As disciples of Jesus, we are called to a discipline that contends against evil and resists whatever leads us away from love of God and neighbor. I invite you, therefore, to the discipline of Lent – self-examination and repentance, prayer and fasting, sacrificial giving and works of love – strengthened by the gifts of word and sacrament.”
“Self-examination and repentance, prayer and fasting.” It’s easy to think that these are disciplines that have to be dreary and full of deprivation. But, in fact, they lead to freedom and joy; release for our true selves – the persons God creates us to be! It is the daily return to our baptisms – the drowning of the old person in us, so that a new person can come forth and rise up to live before God.
This Lent, how might you be conscious of whatever it is that distracts you from God? How might you try out a practice or two that might enable you to focus on God’s grace-filled and joy-filled presence?
For instance, is your smart phone the chief source for distraction? I’m struck by some sentences in an important new book by Cal Newport, called Digital Minimalism. He wrote the book because, for so many, addiction to social media and other technologies are sucking so much time that many are distracted from what they truly value: people they love, and what their purpose is in life and work. Newport writes: “A common term I heard in these conversations about modern digital life was exhaustion. It’s not that any one app or website was particularly bad when considered in isolation. As many people clarified, the issue was the overall impact of having so many different shiny baubles pulling so insistently at their attention and manipulating their mood. Their problem with this frenzied activity is less about its details than the fact that it’s increasingly beyond their control. Few want to spend so much time online but these tools have a way of cultivating behavioral addictions. The urge to check Twitter or refresh Reddit becomes a nervous twitch that shatters uninterrupted time into shards too small to support the presence necessary for an intentional life.”
Lent reminds us to live an intentional life. What distracts you from God? How might you engage in prayer, and in fasting from whatever distracts you from God?
“Whenever you pray,” Jesus teaches in our gospel reading, “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” This Lent, how might you “go into your room and shut the door” on distraction?
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It is inefficiency that nurtures prayer, you know. Prayer flourishes during unhurried time that we carve out, when we close the door on distractions so we can simply be in God’s grace-filled and joy-filled presence.
To continue my rant against social media and other technologies that are so distracting, I want to quote Nicholas Carr, who wrote a book entitled The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. Carr cites brain research showing that we lose our ability to focus and to think deeply when we spend too much time online, because online content encourages “networked” thinking: we read something short that has a link to something else to read that’s short, and we click the next link to read (or to watch) something short. Speed is important. It’s what Carr calls “efficiency of information exchange.” We’re “hurried off toward another bit of related information, and then another, and another.” However, he writes, “true enlightenment comes only through contemplation and introspection.” I don’t know about you, but I find that, when I spend so much time skimming and then clicking the next link, it does become harder for me to read deeply and to think in a sustained, focused way. I don’t know about you, but I worry about what I am losing. I’m especially troubled by these sentences that Nicholas Carr writes: “It’s not only deep thinking that requires a calm, attentive mind. It’s also empathy and compassion.”
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I invite you into Lenten discipline that contends against and resists whatever distracts you from God, and leads you away from empathy and compassion, love of God and neighbor. What forms might your fasting take?
Do news alerts on your phone cause such distraction? Perhaps your Lenten fasting will take the form of turning off those alerts, as a way to “go into your room and shut the door” on what distracts you from God. Does social media cause such distraction? Perhaps “go[ing] into your room and shutting the door” would mean to fast from social media unless you have something to post, contending against and resisting the time suck of aimlessly scrolling down the newsfeed. (It is a growing practice, especially among Millennials who are Christ followers, to fast from face book entirely during Lent!) Perhaps your Lenten discipline to contend against and resist distraction could be to fast from the entire Internet each week – a weekly Internet sabbath. (This is another growing practice among Millennials.)
Traditionally, fasting is seen as something negative – as in, “What are you giving up for Lent?” But what joy and freedom results, when, in our fasting, we turn away from our curved-in-on-ourselves, sinful selves, to instead, turn towards God! That turning is what repentance is! Did you notice the prophet Isaiah teaching us how to do this in our first reading tonight, words spoken approximately 2,900 years before the invention of the Internet? The fast God desires is to fast from injustice, and from oppression – and, instead, to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house and, when you see the naked, to cover them.
Distraction is not limited to the Internet, of course!
So – what distracts you from God? Is it your propensity to worry?
What distracts you from God? Is it anger?
May I share 11 suggestions for fasting that are attributed to Pope Francis?
Fast from hurting words. Instead, say kind words.
Fast from sadness. Instead, be filled with gratitude.
Fast from anger. Instead, be filled with patience.
Fast from pessimism. Instead, be filled with hope.
Fast from worrying. Instead, trust in God.
Fast from complaining. Instead, contemplate simplicity.
Fast from the pressures you feel. Instead, be prayerful.
Fast from bitterness. Instead, fill your heart with joy.
Fast from selfishness. Instead, be compassionate to others.
Fast from grudges. Instead, be reconciled.
Fast from words. Instead, be silent so you can listen.
This Lent, I invite you to practice prayer, and fasting from whatever distracts you from God’s grace-filled and joy-filled presence.
In the name of God, who is Father and Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Pastor Andy Ballentine
 Evangelical Lutheran Worship liturgy for Ash Wednesday.
 Luther, Small Catechism
 Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, (Portfolio/Penguin, 2019), p. XII-XIII.
 Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2010).
 Carr, page 166, 167
 Carr, page 194. My emphases.
 Check out, for instance, http://digitalsabbath.io/?fbclid=IwAR0EhLJQXGqAcaM_Xkbqd3MHTHnS0Glw6_fcEjk6AQyWeFAn-CoT2LkGZI8
 Yes, yes, I got these on the Internet! They are “attributed” to Pope Francis – which means that he might have actually said them! https://blessedsacramentonline.org/brents-blog/pope-francis-suggestions-fasting/