Our life is now punctuated by incessant computer pings, cell phone jingles, and beeps of one kind or another… Our attention shifts, on average, every three minutes… we suffer from a kind of cultural ADD. (36)
The remedy, according to Dr. Wells, is the self-discipline of “focus.” He says that we need to learn how to pay attention again.
Attention and focus are the fuels that actually enable us to get things done… Withdrawal and ordering are the two keys to attention – being able to withdraw from alternatives, at least for periods of time, and to focus the mind on something that we have isolated. (37)
And then he turned his concern for such “focus” to the spiritual life –
If we are convinced that we need, above all, to know God, to know who he is in his character, that will trump every competing interest. But we have to be utterly convinced. Being halfhearted and divided in our focus will not get us to where we want to be. As Jonathan Edwards observed a long time ago, we act on our strongest motive. If our strongest motive, our deepest desire, is to know God, it will generate the discipline we need to pursue this, because we will
want to know God more than anything else. If this is not our strongest motive, we will find ourselves with multiple, alternative and competing foci. These will inevitably distract us… (37)
And “distracted” we are, both externally and internally.
…This lack of attention, from one angle, is the result of having to answer too many e-mails, too many phone calls, wanting to visit too many blog sites, having to choose between too many products, needing to keep up too many relationships (perhaps many of them virtual) and to do too many other things. However, from another angle, all of this speaks to what we really want… Would we prefer merely to have the pose of being Christian, living only with our appearances, or do we want the real thing, God himself? (38)
Thanksgiving Day is the annual starting gate for the frenzy of the holiday season. Be prepared to get distracted. This week the chase for the perfect Christmas begins, the one that memories are made of and that songs are written about. And so the gauntlet of shopping, spending, wrapping, sending, cooking, driving, visiting and celebrating commences. We won’t come up again for air until well after New Year’s Day. And when it’s all over, and the tree and boxes have been drug to the curb for heavy trash pick-up, we will experience the spiritual equivalent of “buyer’s remorse.” We always do.
Wasn’t this supposed to have meant more to me?
Wasn’t this supposed to have been more about Christ than gadgets and trinkets?
Wasn’t I supposed to have grown spiritually?
Shouldn’t I have experienced some increase in my love for God and neighbor?
Why do I feel so empty inside?
To avoid this annual outcome, this seasonal “let-down,” we’ve got to get our “focus” now before it all starts. In Psalm 16:8 David said: “I have set the Lord continually before me.” And Jesus memorably told us to – “Seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). These are invitations to avoid distraction by deliberately deciding to give our attention to God. This is a spiritual discipline that Frank Laubach taught in his little booklet “The Game with Minutes – Christ is the Only Hope of the World” (you can find it at: http://www.dunedin.elim.org.nz).
Frank Laubach was a missionary in the Philippines in the 1930’s. While coming to terms with his own spiritual “weakness” (“Although I have been a minister and a missionary for 15 years, I have not lived the entire day of every day in minute-by-minute effort to follow the will of God” he once confessed in a letter to his father) Frank Laubach began to figure out a way “to live all my waking moments in conscious listening to the inner voice, asking without ceasing, ‘What, Father, do you desire said? What, Father, do you desire done this minute?’” He experimented with ways to make a “more complete surrender” of himself to God and God’s will by taking some time from each conscious hour “to give God much thought.” For him this focus and attentiveness was a “deliberate act of the will.” He began to call this spiritual discipline “The Game with Minutes.” It was necessary in his mind because –
Few people are getting enough of Christ to save either themselves or the world. Take the United States, for example. Only a third of the population belongs to the Christian church. Less than half of this third attend service regularly. Preachers speak about Christ in perhaps one service in four —thirty minutes a month! Good sermons, many of them excellent, but too infrequent in presenting Christ. Less than ten minutes a week given to thinking about Christ by one-sixth of the people is not saving our country or our world; for selfishness, greed, and hate are getting a thousand times that much thought. What a nation thinks about, that it is. We shall not become like Christ until we give Him more time.
To give Christ more time in our lives, Frank Laubach proposed his “game with minutes.”
We call this a “game” because it is a delightful experience and an exhilarating spiritual exercise; but we soon discover that it is far more than a game… You have hitherto thought of God for only a few seconds or minutes a week, and He was out of your mind the rest of the time. Now you are attempting, like Brother Lawrence, to have God in mind each minute you are awake…. to make Christ your inseparable chum.
To play the “Game with Minutes” Frank Laubach told his readers to discipline themselves to consciously call Christ to mind for one second out of every sixty second minute, and then to calculate just exactly how many minutes in a sixty minute hour you have actually succeeded in being aware of Christ for a second. He explained –
Your score will be low at first, but keep trying, for it constantly becomes easier, and after a while is almost automatic… Each time we try we shall do better until at last we may be able to remember God as high as ninety per cent of the whole day. Eventually we will develop what Thomas A. Kempis calls a “familiar friendship with Jesus.” Our Unseen Friend becomes dearer, closer and more wonderful every day until at last we know Him as “Jesus, lover of my soul” not only in songs, but in blissful experiences. Doubts vanish, we are more sure of Him being with us than of anybody else. This warm, ardent friendship ripens rapidly until people see its glory shining in our eyes—and it keeps on growing richer and more radiant every month.
Frank Laubach understood that this spiritual exercise, just like all spiritual exercises, could feel external and artificial. But he also understood that “good resolutions aren’t enough… we need to discipline our lives to an ordered regime,” and so he was open to using “any aid” that might prove “useful” in helping him consciously “cling” to the presence of Christ understanding that because it was finally about “fixing our eyes upon Jesus” that eventually this discipline would give way to a “new freedom,” and we would find ourselves not so much “tied down” to an external practice as being caught up in the glory of an ongoing encounter with the living God. The whole point of the “Game with Minutes” is to train our eyes to see the face of God in our ordinary moments and to tune our hearts to hear the music of God that is playing as the soundtrack to our lives.
The person who first introduced me to the “Game with Minutes” said that once he had received its great benefit in his spiritual life by helping to make his desire to “practice the presence of God” a more practical reality in his life, that just like we are told to do at the end of a time of Ignatian Prayer, he “plucked” a fruit from the experience to carry with him to nibble on and be nourished by throughout the rest of the day. He said that just as the “Game with Minutes” helped him to become more conscious of the way that Jesus Christ was constantly present in his life and his world, so he “plucked” a practice from the spiritual exercise to carry forward with him into the rest of his life. After he “won” his “Game with Minutes,” my friend decided that to remain sensitive to the presence of God, that he would choose an external stimulant, something outside himself that periodically broke in upon him, to “poke” him into a new awareness of God’s presence. He chose sirens. He said that whenever he heard the siren of a police car, fire engine or ambulance, day or night, that it would trigger his consciousness that Jesus Christ is “Emmanuel,” “God with us,” and that in his awakened awareness of Christ’s companionship, he would then “Christify” the situation to which that emergency vehicle was heading. He would pray for the people who were in trouble and had called for help, and he would pray for the helpers who were right then in the process of responding. He would pray the presence of Christ that the siren had alerted him to into the situation to which that siren was going.
I chose Cardinals for my “external stimulant.” I didn’t see redbirds growing up in Southern California, and so their presence in the trees and on the fences of my Texas world fascinated and delighted me. Their flash of color always gets my attention. When I see one, it always causes me to pause and watch. And so I determined long ago that whenever a Cardinal flew into my life that I would take it as a “tug” from God that He was still there, that He was thinking of me and that I should be thinking of Him.
It’s all about “focus,” about learning how to pay attention, and perhaps no spiritual discipline is more urgently needed as the race to Christmas now begins. DBS+