Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Right Focus

Brothers and sisters, become imitators of me and watch those who live this way—you can use us as models. As I have told you many times and now say with deep sadness, many people live as enemies of the cross. Their lives end with destruction. Their god is their stomach, and they take pride in their disgrace because their thoughts focus on earthly things. Our citizenship is in heaven. We look forward to a savior that comes from there—the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform our humble bodies so that they are like his glorious body, by the power that also makes him able to subject all things to himself.
Therefore, my brothers and sisters whom I love and miss, who are my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord.                                         Philippians 3:17-4:1

Why would anyone take pride in disgrace? That was my first question when I read this passage, the lectionary epistle for the second Sunday of Lent.

Assuming we don’t intentionally want to be proud of disgrace, then I believe that Paul is warning us to not be proud of earthly things. When our focus is on such things, we lose sight of God’s kingdom and the fact that earthly things are impermanent and passing away.

Paul speaks of people whose god is their stomach, which says to me that when something other than God claims our focus—be it food, career, reputation, possessions—it becomes our god.

The early desert monastics had much to say about attachments and their subtle pull on our hearts. One of my favorite stories from the desert tells of a monk who relishes acclaim and is downcast when accused. The abba sends him out into the cemetery two nights in a row. The first night he spends the whole night complimenting the dead; the next night he criticizes the same dead all night long. The abba asks him how the dead reacted each of the two nights. The monk tells him they didn’t respond either way. The wise word to the monk is to be like the dead, immune to praise or blame.

More often than not, it is the subtle things like the “need” for praise, and the pride that underlies it, that become a god. We may resist the obvious temptations and be completely unaware of the subtle ways we are drawn away from God.

The best way I know of to become aware of the subtle forces pulling our attention away from God is to model ourselves after wise guides and to practice silence.

A practice of silence separates us from the constant hammering of the culture that shapes our values and behaviors, taking our focus off the values and behaviors of Jesus. Wise guides reinforce the pattern of Jesus’ life, giving us models for our own lives. Wise guides may be contemporary or ancient. We may know them personally as people of great depth, or we may learn from them by their writings that have endured over centuries.

Patience must likewise undergird our diligent practice of focusing on things of God. Unlike the quick-fix, sound byte advice dispensed in our culture, our transformation is a long, slow process. One of the gifts of Lent is to help us keep our focus in the right place.

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