Driven from Distraction

In a church I once served as pastor, there was an infrequent attender who was always chasing after various get-rich-quick schemes that never amounted to anything much. Most of her pursuits involved little work and little investment, especially on her part; and it seemed all of them involved the pyramiding of other people's money. One time she set up a meeting with me to try to sell the idea that, together, we could get the whole congregation involved in selling pre-paid phone cards, an item that you may have forgotten about now but something that was quite popular back before we all carried cell phones. The idea was that you purchased these credit-card-like-things that contained a set number of pre-paid minutes for long-distance calls; and instead of the hassle of dropping coins into a pay phone, you simply entered the numbers on the card and talked for as long as you had minutes available. My parents used to mail me phone cards in college, which they would expect me to use to call home. Calling card rates were cheaper than dialing direct, and you could always get some really good deals if you shopped around.

My parishioner's idea was brilliant, and she was just sure it would provide the church with all the cash we would ever need. Everybody needed phone cards, she said, so why not involve everyone in the church in using and selling them, all in cahoots with one provider she was working with. A certain percentage of each card sold would come back to the church. Ten percent, she said, as to imply a tithe, so the whole transaction would be very biblical. Another percentage, of course, would go to her...and to me, too, if I  would get in on the ground floor, because not only would each parishioner be selling phone cards, but they also would be expected to enlist a minimum number of their friends and relatives in selling phone cards too, before they could be vested in program. Soon we'd all be getting very rich, the whole town and far beyond, because the income from each purchase was distributed up the pyramid, eventually back to her and to me--oh, and the church, of course--and all along the way, each rung of the ladder would take their share of the loot. Everybody would win. And because she knew of our church's deep commitment to social justice, she said this venture would also qualify as a ministry to the poor, because we would be helping lots of poor folk to get some really good phone rates.

I listened as patiently as I could, while she outlined her plan, and I'd like to think her heart was in the right place; but mostly all I could think about was what a lousy, stinking job I had done in teaching basic Christian stewardship to the members of my congregation, at least as far as she was concerned. I explained why I was not interested, basically because, apart from the fuzzy math and the serious ethical considerations, not to mention the obvious IRS investigation she would be inviting upon us, it was also a complete distraction from the core mission of the church, which is to help people grow in our love for God and for our neighbor. Anything that takes our attention, wholesale away from that focus, is a hindrance, not a help, to the church and its people. Good discipleship is what yields far more dollars for the church, and more justice and kindness in the world, than any side-show enterprise we might dream up, even if it would bring in boat loads of money, which, in this case, I sincerely doubted.  

So without my support for her plan, she left my office expressing great disappointment in me, because I was obviously letting a sweetheart deal for our little church slip away. But she didn't allow my lack of endorsement to dissuade her, because she still tried to enlist a few of her church friends in her supposed fundraising scheme. Once, at coffee hour, I thought I spied her meeting with a few of her cohorts, talking informally about how they were going to launch their Donald Trump empire. I was so angry I was tempted, like Jesus, to grab my whip and drive her and her phone cards away from the church property; but then I thought better of it, knowing her proposal was so lame, it would peter out on its own. And, sure enough, in time it did.

Just to be clear, I'm all for raising funds for ministry. We need the money. I like bake sales, and I have nothing against thrift shops or second-hand clothing stores. I've eaten more than my fair share of spaghetti suppers in church basements for a good cause. I'll buy your kid's candy bars anytime they ask; and, in general, I think it's pretty lousy and insensitive when people don't. But one thing I also know, when it comes to the church, unless our raising money is tied closely to strengthening the mission before us, that is, to grow in our relationship to God and God's people, then it's all for naught.

When Jesus entered that magnificent temple at Jerusalem, the one perpetually under construction, and he saw the cattle, and the sheep, and the turtledoves, and the coin exchanges amid a throng of noisy people barking at--and bartering with--one another, the one thing he didn't see, he couldn't see, was any semblance of a temple. The mission of that place, its reason for existence, had become obscured.

Now, we all know that construction costs money, a lot of money; and this system of offering unblemished animal sacrifices was designed, in part, to pay for the cost of building and maintaining such an impressive structure. But what this system had become was a distraction, not the sustenance it perhaps was first envisioned to be. There, everything was for sale; anything anyone could possibly want could be purchased there. It had become a giant marketplace. But if you went there were looking for sacred space, for a house of prayer, a place where God might live--in other words, what you might expect to find at a temple--all of that seemed in short supply. Jesus knew and understood the temple system, he was part of the sacrificial temple worship, he knew the scriptures, but what he didn't like was the distraction that all this craziness had become.

Sometimes collectively as the church, not just in our personal lives, we need to stop and clarify the purpose behind what we're doing. Sometimes one of the most faithful acts we can engage in is letting go of something that no longer serves its original intent. Understandably, perhaps, in our zeal to preserve the church as institution, we can get so preoccupied and busy with all that, that we forget why we exist in the first place.

Like Martha, who was busy and distracted by so many things, while her sister Mary took the actual time to relish in the very presence of Jesus, their house guest, we too need to stop and take inventory of how we're spending our time.

Yes, we could spend it selling phone cards or something else, but even if we sold a billion of them, without any clarity as to why or for what purpose, what would that get us? Then where would we be? Would we be anywhere nearer to the heart and mission of God? If the answer is yes, then let's pursue it. If the answer is something else, then maybe we'd better step back and re-think it.

When I was a student at Vanderbilt Divinity School, one of my friends and fellow classmates was Becca Stevens, now an amazing entrepreneurial Episcopal priest and founder of the Magdalene House and Thistle Farms in Nashville, an incredible social justice enterprise that offers economic opportunities and a residential program for women who have suffered lives of prostitution, trafficking, addiction and life on the streets. And one of the things that Becca emphasizes constantly in her ministry is that love is the most important force for social change in the world and to the degree that we can stay focused on that essential truth, the power of love, and not be distracted by so many other things, we can accomplish amazing feats against great odds.

It was from Becca that I learned that the great Anglican theologian of the 19th century F. D. Maurice wrote in 1860 about the how the frenzied busyness of the world was keeping people from participating in the mission of the church. Again, that was in 1860. But rather than scoff at that premise, Becca agrees with it. And she says she'd love to have a conversation with F. D. Maurice now, because she thinks that both of them would agree: "It's not any busier now. It's just a different busy, and it will always be a different busy."

So what we have to do is to make faith-work be our first form of busy, she says. Being busy loving one another. Being busy serving one another. Being busy forgiving one another. Because when we make space for loving the world and making that our first form of busy, the other things will follow.

In the book of Acts, Luke, who wrote it, begins the sequel to his gospel with all the Disciples standing on a hillside, scratching their heads and staring up into the sky, immobilized after Jesus had ascended from the earth. And in that awkward, paralyzing moment, an angel of the Lord appears to them and says to the forlorn and understandably confused followers of Jesus, "Galileans, why do you stand staring up into heaven?"

It really just might be the best question posed in the New Testament. Why do you just stand there, staring into outer space? When what you need to be doing is looking around instead. There is so much to be done and to do for the cause of love we don't have time to be distracted.

Lent is the time in the church year when we focus on setting priorities, gaining some clarity and perspective again on what really matters in our Christian walk. Just as distracted driving can lead us into a ditch, or much worse, distracted discipleship can lead us into dangerous territory, too. We can be so busy and preoccupied with saving the institution of the church that what it's supposed to be about becomes almost impossible for us, much less outsiders, to distinguish. It's why the prayer of the church has always been "Give us to ears to hear and eyes to see," because without that clarity in mission--why and for what purpose we exist--sure enough we will find ourselves listening for and looking after the wrong things. Chasing after distractions, because our distractions often serve our need to feel useful, even if they serve very little other purpose.

The kin-dom of God, Jesus said, is like a merchant who stumbles upon a pearl of great price. It's like the leaven in bread, like a seed with the hidden potential to grow into something magnificent. It's hugely important, but it's not always easy to spot at first glance. In fact, it's rather elusive. Maybe that's why distractions are often preferred, because at least they seem concrete and can make us feel more religious, because the work of love, justice, forgiveness, reconciliation...that's harder to discern much less to proclaim and to implement.

To be sure, when Jesus entered the temple marketplace and began cracking whips and turning over tables and causing mayhem and making a mess, he didn't much look like the images of the Jesus I had grown up with, especially in the pictures hanging on the walls of my Sunday School classrooms. Oh, I knew how nice and sweet he was, a docile fellow. We saw him holding little sheep and welcoming children, and above all else, looking serenely prayerful, peaceful, and in touch and in tune with God.

But we need to remember this Jesus, too, who wants us to remember that, just because we're down at the church and keeping busy, it doesn't necessarily mean that work has anything to do with redeeming and reconciling the world. It could just be distraction, from which Jesus, too, wants to save us.

Will you pray with me. O God, keep us focused on what really matters, drawing people closer to you and ever closer to their neighbors, which Jesus defined for us as the outcasts, the stranger. This is the hard work you call your church to be about. It would be so much easier to chase after other enterprises instead, but give us eyes to see and ears to hear that we might not forget the witness that is ours nor shirk from your persistent, redemptive work in the world. Amen.