We are easily distracted. This became more obvious recently when we watched a BBC detective mystery on Netflix. It required intense concentration. As we watched episode one, my phone beeped. I turned away to see who it was. The rest of the show was nonsense. I only missed one sentence. It was the key to the entire plot.
So, blame it on the times. There's so much in the margins of life most of us have difficulty catching the main text. The idea of multi-tasking is really a secondary response to multi-thinking, that is, working through the many things vying for our attention. As a result, our attention deficits translate to lower registration numbers. We're getting lots of hits but less of it is registering in our memory banks. I heard what the guy was saying in the mystery TV thing. I'm not deaf, yet. But, it wasn't etched into those synapses because I was focused on something else.
Then, there are the desolate places mentioned in the Gospels. Jesus found them and recommended them as places of spiritual devotion, refreshment, and solitude. It's an interesting study, the word commonly used in the texts to identify desolate places, "eremos". Used forty-eight times in the New Testament, three texts are important here as a means of understanding our action in regards to distractions.
And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and
went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed.
Mark 1:35, ESV
And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a
while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.
Mark 6:31, ESV
But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray.
Luke 5:16, ESV
My selective use of these three verses is purposeful. They are indications of our Lord's own personal prayer and devotional life and what he wished for his disciples. The use of the term "eremos" further demonstrates what is necessary for us to find solitude in a world of distractions. Here are some shades of meaning---
1. Eremos can reference geographical distance.
2. It could apply to an uncultivated place.
3. Desolate places at times could be the absence of populations.
4. At times it meant being deprived of aid and protection by other people.
5. There was also the implication of being apart from what is familiar.
This is a hard one for a generation of distracted humans. Jesus could lay aside the distractions of life---family, pressure, opposition, and anything else because he had emptied himself, what theologues call kenosis (reference Philippians 2:7, ESV). We humans should experience self-denial as a first step in discipleship. Jesus said, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me" (Luke 9:23, ESV). This involves the laying aside of self so we can be in fellowship with him.
So, how can I find a desolate place in such a busy world? Five things---
1. In devotion or study, set aside all the distractions. For me that
means leaving my devices and apps outside my desolate place.
2. Find a place without emotional connections. My study is not a good place
for me to have my most concentrated time with the Lord. There are too many
pictures and mementos to attract my thoughts away from him.
3. Try to find a spiritual focus to prevent the mind from wandering. Mine is a
small stone from Tabgha on the Sea of Galilee, a reminder of a special place
visited in seven trips to the Holy Land. It's not an icon that I worship or
venerate in any way. Just a reminder when my mind starts playing games.
4. Be alone or with someone that will not distract you. Praying with Harriet is
one of the high moments of my day. But, she's not with me with I have my
personal time with him.
5. Take intentionality into your desolate place. Jesus didn't escape the crowds
or avoid being with people. But, he was very intentional with his time with
the Father. If we are to follow in his footsteps, we should be intentional too.
It's the prayer closet. That's what people used to call their place of devotion and spiritual preparation. An old pastor once showed me his prayer closet. it was just that---a very small unlit closet with no decoration. It had a chair in the middle, facing away from the door. He sat in that dark closet for an hour every day. His wife and family were instructed not to interrupt him there except in the case of a life and death emergency. It was his desolate place.
Paul instructed the Thessalonians about their spiritual lives. It resonates with my thoughts about distractions. He prayed that they would be sanctified completely.
Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your
whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord
1 Thessalonians 5:23, ESV
That's it. Completely. No distractions.