Genesis 28:10-17 / Psalm 42
Weekend in the Woods @ Camp Lackawanna
August 19, 2012
William G. Carter
Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’
“Squirrel!” Anybody who saw the movie “Up” knows what that means. A pack of angry cartoon dogs are bearing down on an old cartoon man and a young cartoon boy. As the dogs prepare to pounce, they are distracted. In one voice, they cry out: Squirrel! And off they run in another direction.
We laughed in the movie theater when we saw the scene. We laugh because we understand. It’s not a description of dogs in the wild. People in America are more distractible now than ever before. If we are talking about the changes of the past 100 years of our church’s life, this is a big one.
Our attention span is shorter. Much shorter. Presbyterians used to sit still for forty minute sermons without any sermons. Not so any more. I’m often pushing the limits at eighteen minutes and 2200 words. And should a rodent run through the screened-in porch today, I might as well start over. Somebody yell “Squirrel!”
The slightest thing can break our concentration. We’ve been trained that way. Reasonable discourses are reduced to sound bytes. Human stories are downsized to television sit-coms, interrupted every six minutes by three commercials. The availability of interruptions is constant. When was the last time you sat still for two hours doing only one thing? It virtually does not happen, not like it did a hundred years ago.
These days we have the diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder. It replaces hyperactivity and neediness with the psychological inability to concentrate on much of anything. A lot of us are so inflicted. It’s the world we live in – and the world that now lives in us.
Andy and Donna Kepler recently returned from a weeklong seminar in western New York. The topic was something like “Human Identity in a Digital World.” Scientists report that the internet is affecting our brains and the ways we function. Neurons fire differently because we have a dozen windows open on our computers. And our gadgets tempt us to tweet and log-in all the time. There are churches out there who have decided to swim along, and the people in the pews tweet their prayer concerns while the preacher is working.
Of course, not everybody is swimming along. One of our elders asked me to stop text-messaging when we are in meetings. Apparently my distractions are distracting her. She’s got a point. And all of this could not have been imagined a hundred years ago.
What has happened to us? It seems that all of life has accelerated. Everything runs faster. We cram more activity in our days, brag about our busyness, then groan about how tired we are. In the midst of this reckless abandon, we process an enormous amount of information every day.
Imagine a time when you had to walk to school or walk to work. Think back to when the only news you received came from the morning newspaper, the evening broadcast, and the neighbor at the back fence. Now we are swamped with information on Russian punk bands, drone attacks in northern Pakistan, and the latest pictures of Lindsay Lohan going shopping. There is an earthquake in Indonesia, wildfires in Spokane, and political cartoons on Facebook. We may be more connected to the wider world, but we are more distracted from everything by everything.
And in the middle of our distractions, we can no longer discern where God is in the middle of our lives. Where is God lurking? Where is God nudging us, or speaking to us? We can be so distracted that we no longer ask.
That ancient story of Jacob can be a help. Jacob is the family crook. He is on the run, having stolen his father’s blessing from his twin brother. Esau, a hard-working and hairy he-man, was understandably upset when he discovered his fair-haired brother had taken what we legally his. Jacob had split for the hills. He had a good start, but he knew Esau would be chasing him down.
One night, Jacob found himself in the boonies. It must have been pretty close to here. There was no cell phone coverage, no television reception, and the G.P.S. system was not working so well. He was so exhausted that he fell asleep, and put his head on big rock for a pillow. And then he had a dream: there was a ladder to heaven. Angels were coming down it. Angels were going up on it. Constant circular motion between heaven and earth.
Then to his shock and surprise, he saw God. God was not hiding behind a cloud up high. God was right there, speaking the same promises that he had given to Jacob’s father, and to his grandfather. God was present in the dark night, completely inhabiting his dream. Jacob could outrun his brother, but he could not outrun God. God knew him by name. God promised to protect him. God declared for him a safe return to home. God’s promise and presence were there all the time, but Jacob had been too busy to know it, too preoccupied with his own maneuvers, too consumed with his own affairs.
God stands at the center of all the noise and distraction of our lives. Like Jacob, we never outrun our God. But we often declare we are too busy to pray. Or too busy to read scripture. Or too much on the move to revisit the quiet center where God still speaks. Even if we do sit still, even if some preacher lays a spiritual guilt trip on us, we may settle down for a few minutes and then, “Squirrel!” And off we go.
One of the skills for becoming a spiritual person is the skill of paying attention. Learning to let go of the distractions. Focusing on the things that matter most. Listening for the Voice of love.
It might be enough to get outside more. To sit in the woods. Do you ever do that? The early Christians spoke of God’s two books – the book of Scripture and the book of nature. We learn about God from each of these two books. Sit on a rock and watch the world happen around you. Sink into nature’s rhythm and take a long, loving look at what’s real. It’s a good idea, and we have the opportunity to do that in a place like this.
I’ve been trying myself to go for a daily walk. Sometimes I convince myself that I’m too busy. But the days when I walk, I notice more life in the crack of pavement than the speeding tourist ever sees. God’s creative power is all around us. Hidden in the fierceness of nature, there is a deep and profound Love. It’s almost as if God is calling out to us from behind the tree, or singing to us from the babbling river, or inviting us to dance as the wind whistles through the trees.
Pay attention to these things, and we begin to listen for God. Like the Psalmist, we long for God more than anything else. All of our deepest desires are really a hunger for God. When we dart from one website to another, what we really want is for God to come and fill us. Our thirst may be misdirected, but what we want most of all is to drink deeply from the stream of mercy. We were created with a God-shaped hole. Every one of us. We will fill this vacancy with anything we can find – but only God can satisfy us. We find God by seeking God.
There is so much more than be said about this spiritual practice of paying attention. But too many words can be a distraction. I hope you take some time to be still, to sojourn by the river or walk among the trees. And I offer you a poem from Saint Seraphim of Sarov, a Russian hermit who lived alone in a log cabin for twenty-five years.
When you pray, be like the mountain
in stillness, in silence;
thoughts rooted in eternity.
Do nothing; just sit, just be;
and you will harvest the fruit of your prayer.
When you pray, be like the flower
reaching up to the sun;
straight stemmed like a column.
Be open, ready to accept all things without fear
and you will not lack light on your way.
When you pray, be like the ocean
with stillness in its depths
the waves ebbing and flowing
Have calm in your heart, and evil thoughts will flee of their own accord.
When you pray, remember the breath
that made us living beings,
from God it comes; to God it returns.
Blend the Word and prayer with the flow of life
and nothing will come between you and the Giver of Life.
When you pray, be like the bird,
endlessly singing before the Creator
its song rising like incense.
Pray like the turtle dove and you will never lose heart.
May I suggest that we conclude with a time of silence?
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.
 Quoted by Esther De Waal in Lost in Wonder: Rediscovering the Spiritual Art of Attentiveness (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2003), 53.