One Thing in a World of Many Things

Last night I attended a fundraising banquet for a local ministry. In between bites of chicken cordon bleu, I made brief acquaintance with the strangers at the table. The man to my left, quiet and bearded, shared that he makes a living writing code for a local video game developer. He's spent the past five years working on the next game. Five years. One thing. 

In recent years I've found myself regularly moved by the work of artists and craftsmen who are able to focus their attention and efforts upon one thing. Perhaps its a gentle rebuke to my own divided spirit, blown and tossed by numerous pursuits. 

One particular memory takes me back to a small town in Jerome, Arizona, the former copper mining capital of the West. Nestled on the mountainside, amidst the ruins of the stone structure of a deteriorating church parish, a glassblower invited us into his glass shop where he showed us the wonder of his craft - a trade he's been devoted to for decades, with evidences of his creative devotion flanking us on every side. 

I remember opening up a children's book this past Christmas with my daughter. We marveled at the artistry unfurled before us on its pages. So moved by the artist's work, I went to Google to discover more of his work and there discovered a treasure trove of his illustrations - handiwork created over a lifetime of artistic devotion.

The existentialist, Kierkegaard, once wrote that "purity of heart is to will one thing." 

I tend to agree with him. My life bears it out. I struggle to focus on one thing. Is it harder nowadays? We live in a world of many things, the seeming ubiquity of things to beckon our attention, affection and devotion. I'm not so sure the past two years of pandemic have helped us, likely driving us further into the digital frenzy of life in the cloud. Hurry, anxiety, performance, consumption, striving - these are some of the hallmarks of our broader culture. 

Maybe it's just me? Am I the only one who struggles to stay focused? Who gets overwhelmed by the options? Maybe, as one author has argued, Google has just made me "stupid." Or, as another author has argued, perhaps I've conformed myself to the image of my phone, a device which breeds restlessness, distraction and inattention. Maybe it's just my brain and the propensity for attention deficit and struggle to get into "flow", a term which has worked its way into our social imaginary as a generative space where we are able to devote entire selves to productivity with one single project.

But, this isn't a reflection on productivity. This is an honest appeal to consider: is it possible to focus on one thing? To live for one thing? What is my one thing?

Jesus, the wisest teacher to every walk the earth has some words for us on this question. 

With language of "purity" that Kierkegaard picked up on, Jesus said in his famous "Beatitudes" preamble for his consequential Sermon on the Mount, "Happy are the pure in heart, for they will see God." 

To see God and not turn away in shame, fear, guilt, greed, distraction, boredom or inattention, but instead to bathe in his joyful presence? That sounds like bliss; like what we are all chasing with our pixel pushing, our Amazon one-clicking, our endless swiping, scrolling, seeking and striving.

Later in his ministry, while in the home of sisters, Mary and Martha, Jesus spoke to the distracted sister: "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but only one thing is necessary; Mary has chosen the better portion and it will not be taken from her."

That story appeared twice yesterday for me amidst an acute experience of anxiety and trouble in my own soul. What is my one thing? Have I chosen the better portion? If I understand Jesus correctly, when he's talking about the "better portion", he's referring to Mary's choice to sit at Jesus' feet, to still herself in his presence and listen to his teaching when she could have been busying herself with meal prep and serving house guests (that's what she "should" have been doing in that patriarchal culture). 

Jesus referring to himself as the "better portion" and as the necessary "one thing" reminds me of his words to the crowds in John 6. After he multiplied a little boy's lunch offering of five barley loaves and two fish and with it fed over five thousand people, Jesus proceeded to tell the temporarily satiated multitude that it actually he, the Son of Man in the flesh, who is the "bread of life" who can satiate our gnawing hunger and appetite for immortality and peace with God. 

Hundreds of years before the Messiah, Jesus, arrived on the scene Isaiah prophesied these words: 

  Come, all you who are thirsty
come to the waters;

and you who have no money,
    come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
    without money and without cost.
Why spend money on what is not bread,
    and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
    and you will delight in the richest of fare.
Give ear and come to me;
    listen, that you may live.

Mary is a living witness of obedience to this word of Isaiah. She was aware of her own hunger and thirst and recognized in Jesus the incarnational fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy. She chose to delight herself in the rich fare of Jesus' presence. The house guests, the cleaning, the food prep, it didn't matter. She was focused on her one thing - the only one thing who truly stills the troubled waters of a turbulent, tortured and restless soul. We wake up to whining children, hungry bellies, to a full inbox, dirty dishes piled in the sink, to depressing headlines, a dwindling bank account, to unemployment, unfinished books, and growing to-do lists.

That is life. I don't hear Jesus saying we are to ignore responsibility. Obviously that would go against the grain of his teaching. But we are invited to cultivate a fertile garden of attentive and needful simplicity in the midst of the wild and harsh landscape in this east-of-Eden exilic terrain in which we sojourn. We will never be able to do it all or accomplish it all. As the wise sage once wrote in Ecclesiastes, "the eye never has its tire of seeing and the ear its fill of hearing."

I will close this reflection with two parting words. One from the author of the letter to the Hebrews and the other, a stanza from the mid-19th century American Shaker hymn.

"...let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God."

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain'd,
To bow and to bend we will not be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come round right.


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