Lent: From Distraction to Attention
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: Matthew 17:1-9
If you look over at that back corner, you’ll see the stained glass window dedicated to this Sunday. This day of Transfiguration. The last Sunday before Lent starts. A final demonstration of how Jesus was in the world but not of the world A last burst of inexplicable brightness and amazement before the long road to the cross, before the revelation of the ultimate mystery and joy of our faith: resurrection.
Jesus takes Peter and James and John up onto a high mountain where he is revealed to be something beyond human and beyond time. Not only does his face shine like the sun and his garments glow bright white, but he’s there with Moses and Elijah, fathers of his faith from centuries ago. No one needs to say it: Jesus is kind of a big deal. A bigger deal than we can even fathom.
And Peter is psyched. Which is something I really love about Peter, actually. He’s always so guileless, always willing to ask the question everyone else is too afraid to ask, say the thing everyone else is too timid to say. “I will make three dwellings for you!” he says. Peter wants to protect this moment, build an edifice for these three giants of his faith. He wants to hold on to the magic.
It’s the same thing he does in the chapter just before this moment. Jesus has just told the disciples that he must face great suffering in Jerusalem and die. And Peter wants nothing to do with that scenario: “God forbid it, Lord!” he says. “This must never happen to you.”
We can shake our heads at Peter now, but I know I would have said the same thing. Peter cares for Jesus, his friend and teacher. He doesn’t want to see him suffer. He doesn’t want to see him die. Of course he doesn’t.
And how does Jesus reward this sweet impulse? “Get behind me, Satan!” he says. Whoa, Jesus, chill out. Peter is just trying to protect you.
But I think what Jesus says next is profound. “You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” You are trying to hold on to something that makes you happy in the short term at the expense of deep and lasting joy. You are trying to hold on to something that makes you comfortable in the short term at the expense of unfathomable hope.
This is exactly what Lent is all about.
Lent starts this Wednesday with Ash Wednesday, for me one of the most beautiful rituals of our faith. The ash on our foreheads reminds us that we cannot avoid death. We cannot avoid suffering. We cannot avoid screwing up, sometimes badly. But through it all, God’s got us. We have this ash, the dust to which we will return, but in the shape of the cross—where sin, suffering, and death are transformed into joy, into life abundant. God’s got us.
So often, though, we run away from these facts of human life. We make ourselves small to avoid screwing up. We hoard money and surround ourselves with more comfortable things than we could ever use to avoid suffering. We joke about our age or strive for fame or put wildly heavy expectations on our children to avoid death.
Lent calls us to stop avoiding those things. To stop avoiding sin, suffering, and death. To be present to the fullness of our lives, in all its beauty and difficulty, for 40 days. Because if we can’t face sin, suffering, and death, how can we know resurrection?
Lent isn’t about imposing suffering on yourself. It’s not about denying yourself the things that make you happy. It’s about being willing to stop and take in whatever the world brings into our lives. To face the hard things without running, as Peter wanted to do when Jesus said he was going to die. To experience the beautiful things without clinging to them, as Peter wanted to do when Jesus was transfigured.
In both cases, Jesus tells him, Be here now. Feel what you feel now. Stop trying to hold on, stop trying to create the future in your own image. God’s got us.
We default to distraction, not attention. When we see a beautiful sunset, we reach for our phones to take a photo rather than just taking it in—and we all know the photo never quite captures it. When we feel uncomfortable, we reach for a drink or a snack or a long scroll through social media and other people’s sunsets. I’m not saying any of these things are inherently bad, I’m saying that they can distract us from how God is moving in the world, in others, in ourselves.
Our practice in Lent is to remove distractions and cultivate attention and intention. Peter reached for protection and preservation to distract himself from how God was moving in his world. So the question is, what do you reach for to distract yourself?
Maybe you need to give up your morning news program or social media scroll and instead focus on how your coffee tastes or on making a nice breakfast. Or opening a window and listening to the birds or watching the sunrise. Really letting yourself give attention and intention to all the little miracles of God’s creation.
Maybe you need to give up interrupting people. In every conversation you have. Maybe your practice is to really listen when you’re talking to your partner or children or friends, rather than waiting for your turn to interject with your opinions. So that you can really give attention and intention to how God is shining in the people around you.
Or maybe your practice is to give up apologizing when you haven’t done anything wrong, which is to make yourself small, to dim God’s light in yourself. Replace your apologies with thank yous. A lot of you, especially women, have probably heard about this practice. Instead of “sorry I talked so much,” saying “thanks for giving me that space to express myself.” Instead of “sorry to make things difficult” when you ask for something you need, saying “thanks for being flexible.” Giving attention and intention to the ways God shines in you.
What is the hard thing you try to distract yourself from? What is the amazing thing that you’re trying so hard to preserve that you’re not letting yourself actually experience it. Make that the focus of your Lenten practice. And I encourage you to make that practice simple and specific and achievable. Your practice will be difficult. You’re entering the wilderness as the Israelites did, as Jesus did. But it shouldn’t be so challenging that it’s impossible.
For example, I plan to give up watching tv for Lent, to make space for other potentially more living-giving ways of resting—to lift up more creative ways God shines in my life. However, the Thorns season starts during Lent, so I’m making an exception for soccer games.
Whatever you give up, attention and intention should fill that space. I hope to write and read more when I’m not watching tv. Or spend more quality time with people I love.
But first, I hope to pay attention when I crave that distraction. To take some deep breaths and check in with what that craving is about. And then I have a simple prayer: “Dear God, help me to stay present to you in this moment. Amen.” That’s it.
Prayer is always an act of attention and intention. Let it be the foundation of our Lenten practice. Let it be what we turn to when the need for distraction or preservation pops up. Let it be our strength when the craving is strong. And let it be our lightness when we start to notice that something is shifting in us because of our steadfast practice. Let prayer carry us through this Lenten season.
“Dear God, help us to stay present to you.” Amen.