Holy Tending – the art of paying attention

Philippians 4:1-9

This summer we are exploring together how we discern what it is that God calls us to do, each of us individually and all of us together. The word for this is “vocation,” from the Latin word “vocare” which literally means “to call.”  Vocation: God calls us to live our lives on purpose for the common good.

Our vocations are personal to each individual but they are discerned and lived out in community. We have multiple vocations throughout our life, and multiple vocations at the same time. We are not created for production value, but we are created so we find joy and fulfillment doing some things and not others.

So far we’ve talked about listening to our longings, being open to the past, present and future, naming and living in our values, and experiencing God’s presence in everyday life. This week we are going to talk about the holy art of paying attention. 

I am fan of Apple devices. All my devices are on the Mac platform, and it’s really convenient because they all connect to each other quite seamlessly, and they can perform similar functions but in different ways. One day I was here in my office and my phone rang. Except it wasn’t just my phone. At the same time my phone, my desktop computer, my watch, and my iPad rang. Simultaneously. It was horrifying. 

Today we are talking about attention. And the opposite of attention is distraction. We live in a culture of distraction. We always have something external to distract us. God forbid we just stand in line, or sit in a waiting room without scrolling through news or social media. There are TV screens at the gas pumps! Because apparently you can’t just stand there and pump gas – you have to be distracted. 

I’m very susceptible to this. I almost always have an audiobook on. I can’t just wash the dishes or do my hair without some kind of distraction. But I’ll tell you, I think this culture of distraction is so spiritually dangerous for us. Because what we are being distracted from is ourselves: from our own thoughts, from our own pain, from our own story. We are being distracted from the people around us as they really are and not as they have curated themselves to be online. And we are being distracted from the world around us as it really is and not as an algorithm presents it to us. (Yes, I’m being really down on social media.) I think a culture of distraction is spiritually dangerous and social media, the 24 hour news cycle, and devices that give us everything on demand are a huge part of that culture of distraction.

In a culture of distraction, lots of things catch our attention. Like a dog who sees a squirrel, our attention snaps to whatever’s currently moving. And the reason the culture of distraction is so dangerous is because it is designed, designed, to make it hard for us to pay attention. The question we want to ask ourselves when discerning our vocation is not only “What catches our attention?” but also “What holds our attention?” Neuroscientists say that we can’t actually do more than one thing at one time. We can’t actually pay full attention to multiple things at the same time. Recently I’ve been trying to work on this in myself and I’ve started sewing in silence. Instead of having a book or a show or a podcast or even music, I just work on my projects in silence. And I really truly am paying closer attention. 

So, “what catches your attention?” is the first question. In passing, as you are scrolling, or better yet as you are engaging with the real world, what catches your attention? What kinds of people? What situations? What features of nature or architecture or technology? What ideas? As the river of life flows quickly past, what do you instinctively reach out to grab?

And secondly “what holds your attention?” When you choose to invest your time, when you choose to be aware and mindful and intentional, when you choose to pay attention, where does that attention go? Similar to the way I encouraged you to do a little audit of your calendar and your bank statement when thinking about values, you can do a little audit for attentiveness as well. Four things to consider: what is capturing your <start with index finger> 1) time 2) energy 3) thoughts 4) imagination? Time. Energy. Thoughts. Imagination. What is taking up those things? Your time. Your energy, whether that’s physical or emotional or spiritual. Your thoughts, your problem-solving, your worries. And your imagination, your dreams, your hopes, your future plans. What is capturing the attention of your time, energy, thoughts, and imagination? Once you have a sense of what that is, you can ask yourself how you are experiencing God’s presence and whether your attention is in line with your values. You see how these things weave together? Attention, experiences of God’s presence, and values.

As always, we want to ground our reflections in the scripture. I invite you to turn to Philippians chapter 4, verse 4, which is page 1830 in your pew Bibles. This is a letter written by the apostle Paul during one of his several incarcerations; we’re not sure where he was incarcerated, but the letter is sent to the church in the city of Philippi, which was in eastern Greece, 20 to 30 years after Jesus’ death. In this letter Paul talks a lot about joy and also about distinguishing what’s really important. Chapter 4 is near the end so Paul is starting to summarize. Like I said, we will start in verse 4 and read through verse 9. 

“Rejoice in the Lord always, I will say it again: rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, make your requests known to God. And then the peace of God that passes understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things. Keep on doing whatever you have seen or heard or received from me. And the God of peace will be with you.”

This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.

Are we giving the attention of our time, energy, thoughts and imagination to things that are good, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy? Or are we allowing ourselves to be distracted by whatever’s currently moving?

Beloved, the truth is that if we are going to be attentive, which is the first step to experiencing God’s presence and living in line with our values, if we are going to be attentive, we are going to have to slow down. We are going to have to stop cramming each and every moment as full as it can go. We are going to have to make space in our minds and in our hearts so that we have any attention to pay. For a lot of us, right now, it’s all getting used up so that we don’t even have time or space to consider whether what we are doing is really what God calls us to do. And I am 100% preaching to myself right now. 

So, what catches your attention, and what holds your attention? What do you notice automatically and what fades into the background for you? What are your attention biases? What holds the attention of your time, energy, thoughts, and imagination? Do you pay attention to what is true or what is false, not just about the world around you, but about yourself? Do you give you attention to things that are noble or things that are crass? Are you captivated by what is right or by what is wrong? (Because beloved if you are only ever captivated by what is wrong, you need to shift your attention. The poet Jack Gilbert says, “To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.” I’ll say that again for the people in the back: To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil. So are you captivated by what is right?) Do you honor purity or impurity with your attention? Do you focus on beauty or on ugliness? Do you uplift things that are noble, and excellent, and praiseworthy, or do you ignore them?

Friends, let me push a little bit more here. I think most of us would want to say that yes, we pay attention to the good things. But dear ones, we are submerged in a culture that does not pay attention to good things. As a culture we are fixated on and entertained by crime and violence. We watch it or listen to it or read it, for fun, fake crime as well as true crime. I easily get sucked into that. And beloved, I am becoming ever more convicted that we need to be really careful with that. Because what we give our attention to gets inside us and shapes the way we see the world around us, including people. I’m not advocating naivete or a Pollyanna mindset, but I am saying that surely there are better ways to spend our time, energy, thoughts, and imagination than on things that are violent and hateful. And if for some reason that’s your profession, you especially need to find other things to hold your attention. 

Attentiveness is noticing what we notice. And when we do that, when we notice what we notice, when we put a little space in there, we can begin to shift our attention. We can begin to more deliberately choose what will hold our attention. We may not shift much in what catches our attention; there are a lot of distractions out there. But we can grow in our ability to be less susceptible to those distractions. We can grow in our ability to be less distracted. Slowing down and creating space to notice what we notice creates space for God to show up. Remember, God doesn’t usually force God’s way in if all our time, energy, thoughts and imagination are already taken up by other things. But if we make space that we invite God to fill, that will happen. We will grow spiritually as we give our attention to things that are true, noble, right and pure, lovely and admirable, excellent and praiseworthy. May God give us the grace and the strength to become who we are created to be. Amen.

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