Staying Focused


A study of HEBREWS 12: 1-6

The text refers to the “the race marked out for us,” meaning Jesus has set a course for all believers. We must petition God to reveal our course and, the text adds, we must run it with perseverance. But unexpected events such as sickness or job loss will serve as distractions. The text teaches us how to manage them. It says we need to respond swiftly and decisively.

Added Feature: Below the sermon, Pastor Paul explains the text’s guidance for recognizing distractions, regrouping and finally refocusing so that we may return to our set course.

Pastor Paul from the pulpit

Successful people get back on track no matter how much they veer off course. Tiger Woods is one of the most respected golfers of our time because, his opponents say, he is never out of the game even if he finds himself trailing badly. On the basketball court, now-retired Michael Jordan always wanted to take the last shoot regardless of whether he, himself, was having a bad game.

In an article about performing under pressure, Forbes magazine asked ten top athletes how they coped. All said they embraced pressure as an opportunity to excel. I am a huge baseball fan who loves the New York Mets. In 2006, they had one of the best teams in the major leagues, and only the Detroit Tigers were better that year. Yet, both the Mets and the Tigers lost to a St. Louis Cardinals team that barely finished first in their division, and was three games over five hundred for the regular season.

Successful entrepreneurs and executives display similar perseverance. Michael Dell dropped out of college at age 19 to start PC’s Limited with $1,000 and a heavy dose of dedication. Later named Dell Inc., the company became the world’s most profitable PC manufacturer. Coco Chanel spent part of her childhood in an orphanage, where she trained as a seamstress. Determined to “invent” herself, she threw out ideas the fashion world deemed feminine, and boldly used fabric and styles normally reserved for men. Frank Lloyd Wright never attended high school, but surpassed all odds when he became the most influential architect of the 20th century. Wright designed more than 1,100 projects – and about half were built. His designs have inspired numerous architects to eye the beauty around them, and add to it. Ty Warner is a savvy businessman who is owner, CEO, and Chairman of Ty Inc. The company made $700 million in a year with the Beanie Babies craze without advertising the product. It has since expanded to include Ty Girlz dolls, directly competing with Bratz dolls.

All of these successful people identified a goal, and then focused themselves until they realized it. Though they also knew defeat and failure, they bounced back, and resumed their course.

When people look at successful people, the temptation is to believe they just arrived. There is a tendency to embrace the idea that they had something others do not, or started with advantages we didn’t. In reality, they face the same life-challenges we all face. Jimmy Roberts, a golf analyst for NBC Sports, says in his book Breaking the Slump that the way successful people handle adversity is partly what makes them achievers. Paul Azinger had cancer. Ben Crenshaw got divorced. Phil Mickelson almost lost his wife and son in childbirth. In an interview, Roberts said,

– “While these examples might not be metaphors for life, all of these great players had to battle back from these – the same type of issues that affect ordinary people everyday.”

Life will throw distractions at you. Our success – or lack thereof – will be largely predicated on how well we learn to manage and overcome them.

The writer of Hebrews says,

– “Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.”

Unchecked distractions become hindrances over time. But frequently, we do not realize we are distracted until the event ensnares us. Distractions take our focus from the things we should be doing, causing us to lose sight of our goals.

Distractions are not a sin, but allowing them to consume our focus is.

Researchers have documented the effects of distractions on our lives.

Driving while using a cell phone, for example, affects driving performance and traffic safety, studies by the University of Utah and the Universidad Complutense in Madrid found. It doesn’t matter whether the phone is hand-held or hands-free. The ability of drivers to focus when phoning is reduced to the equivalent of driving drunk.

The same is predicted of the use of emerging in-car technologies, such as navigational displays and Internet browsers. Though developed to make commutes more productive, researchers are discovering they also present new challenges for drivers.

In separate research, a cognitive psychologist who studied brain function and human activity reported that human attention has a limited capacity. That speaks to multi-tasking – doing different things at the same time. This is an often-required quality in our hectic world. Parents have to wake up the kids, get themselves and the youngsters dressed, then fix breakfast – all at the same time. But while we may be able to do many things at the same time, we probably fail to do them all with the same level of efficacy. Invariably, we will forget something.

Hence, drivers engaged by in-car technologies develop inattentive blindness to the driving scene. There is a failure to observe. And how often have we heard the words, “I never saw it coming?” from fired workers, spurned spouses, or parents of children using drugs?

Becoming oblivious to what is going on around us comes with a high price. Usually, there are warning signs that something is not right, especially in the area of human relationships. Human beings are primarily creatures of habit, and changes in routine should cause red flags to go up. It is difficult to recognize the signs if we are inattentive to what is going on around us.

– My father used to say, “Whenever you come home, always walk through the house to make sure everything is in order.”

In other words, pay attention to what is going on around you and be on the lookout for even the subtlest of change.

Still more research has found that our reactions to “imperative” events decreases. Indeed, distractions cause us to be mentally absent in the present. We miss reacting in time to opportunities where a delay in responding could potentially be detrimental.

In a play my fiancée and I recently saw, a couple was going through a rough time. The wife wanted her husband to spend more time with her, but his work distracted him, along with taking care of his father and her mother, and generally making sure the household finances were in order. In one scene, the wife booked a vacation for her and her husband. But the husband, because of the distractions, canceled it. He never realized how important this was to his wife, or that his marriage was in trouble. Throughout the play, the wife implored her husband to give her more of his time. He kept making promises, but never delivered.

While it is important to be responsible and forward thinking, we live in the here and now. If we put all of our energy into planning for tomorrow, we will never live in today. Indeed, while we are planning for tomorrow’s possibilities, we miss today’s opportunities.

Finally, research has shown that the more complex a distraction, the greater the interference in our concentration. Complex distractions demand more of our time, focus and concentration.

David, whom the Bible describes as “a man after God’s own heart,” was a valiant warrior and experienced tremendous battlefield success. However, he failed as a father. David was so preoccupied with his military conquests that he had little time to focus on home. While David was developing strategies and fighting wars, his children were running amuck. Absalom murdered his half-brother Amnon for committing incest with their sister. He later he attempted to overthrow his father. David was forced to abdicate for a brief time, fleeing Jerusalem rather than fighting an attempted coup and being forced to kill his own son (2 Samuel 15).

I have discovered that I cannot hold multiple conversations that require thoughtfulness, and I cannot talk on the phone and work on the computer at the same time. The common thread that all successful people point to is the ability to focus on one task at a time. I have learned that if I am working on a project and something comes up, I need to stop what I am doing if I want to take on the new task. This is why lawmakers and cell-phone companies advise drivers to pull over if they absolutely must use the phone.

There are, of course, healthy distractions that help us to take our minds off stressful situations. Examples are exercising, reading, watching television, and spending time with family. But, like anything else, these too can take us off course when done to excess.

So, how to get back on course once distracted? The writer of Hebrews says,

– “Throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.”

The antidote to distraction is concentration.

The key steps for overcoming distraction

Recognize – You cannot regain concentration until you recognize you have lost it. A medical check up is an opportunity to catch things early. You may not catch everything, but at least you can work toward preventing further complications. Every so often, it is a good idea to do a personal check up – to ask ourselves whether we are doing what we are supposed to be doing, and whether we are where we are supposed to be. A doctor helps us monitor our health. God has empowered believers to monitor their own life. Indeed, this is something we have to do for ourselves. It is not wise to expect others to point out where we have gone off course, or to yield that responsibility to someone else. People see us through their own lens and their lens does not always coincide with the way God sees us. Likewise, we should not meddle in the affairs of others. Remember that God has marked out a course for each of us and we are to run our individual race. Therefore, we should focus on our own course and not try to tell others how to run theirs. This applies too in both marriage and the workplace. Husbands and wives may support one another, but not run one another’s courses. An employee needs to focus on his or her job rather than attempting to determine the overall course for the company. God appoints parents as the head of a family and children in a subordinate role. The common thread is that, from time to time, we lose focus and we cannot regain it until we recognize and admit it was lost.

Regroup – Once you recognize you have veered off course, break free from it. Throw it off! Make a conscious decision to stop doing whatever you are doing. There are things God will do and other things we need to do for ourselves. Breaking free from distractions and behaviors that are self-destructive are among things we have to do for ourselves. This is why the first step of awareness is so critical. One of things about self-destructive behaviors is everyone else sees the damage long before we see it ourselves. The adage is, “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?” But if we are off course, then we are broke and in need of repair. More specifically, our focus is in need of adjustment. I frequently discuss with a good pastor friend the relative positions of our respective ministries. I admit I was, at one time, envious of his success, and secretly tried to compete with him and my perception of his achievements. Boy, was I way off course. One day I had a conversation with God and myself, and God revealed that our situations were different and the outcomes would, therefore, be different. At that moment, I recognized I had lost my focus and decided to break free from the distraction of envy and jealousy.

Refocus – Readjust your focus to what you should be doing. Several years ago, I saw a play titled I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change. The premise was that people spend a portion of their lives seeking the perfect partner. Once they believe they have achieved that, they spend the rest of their lives trying to change the person. Much of the stress we experience has more to do with a lack of acceptance than with the problem itself. Trying to change people is stressful, especially when considering an individual will not change until they are ready. When my father got sick, I fought bitterly with him about changing his lifestyle. It was one of the most frustrating periods of my life. The more pressure I put on him, the more resistant he became. Ultimately, he won because I gave up. I realized I was not responsible for what another person did; I was responsible for being there for them when they needed me. I am the only person I can change, and the only things I can change are those directly related to my life and me. Anything outside my life and me I have to accept as is. Again, the text says, “Let us run the race marked out for us.” Sprinters and distance runners are assigned each a specific lane. A runner entering another runner’s lane is disqualified. We have to learn how to stay in our own lane, and if we wind up in another, we must return to ours as quickly as possible.

Parting Thought

The writer of the text recognizes that getting back on track after going off course is not easy. The text says,

– “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.”

That we will get distracted and go off course is a reality. If we can lock-in on Jesus, keep Him in front of us, focus and pay attention to Him and where He is leading us, we can get back on track.

Sometimes I get distracted by things I have said or done, and find myself stuck in the past event. I find it difficult to let go, and I relive my mistakes. However, the text says we should fix our eyes on being in the present with Jesus. We should develop a sense of tunnel vision by blocking out the external and internal distractions, like noise, thoughts and feelings of worry, fear, anxiety, and concern. Jesus gave birth to our faith and He will develop it in us. We need only make sure our attention fixed on Him, and is unwavering.

Sunday 26 April 2009

May God Bless You

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