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Quotations I love: Eugene Peterson on paying attention

Thursday September 22 2016

Quotations I love: Eugene Peterson on paying attention

"I think the pastor's chief job is not to get something done but to pay attention to what's going on, and to be able to name it, and to encourage it – nobody else is going to do that."
              – interview with Eugene Peterson [1]

When my kids were in elementary school, I read a book on parenting that made an interesting suggestion. The author wrote that compliments should focus on what the child had done, rather than just saying, “great job” or “beautiful painting.” Compliments like this would help the child be motivated to do more of the same, the author suggested: “You put a lot of time into that tree you drew. Look at the leaves and the fruit!” “I watched you welcome that new girl into the group. You showed kindness to her.” “I see careful and precise writing on this homework assignment.”

That book changed the way I complimented my kids, husband, friends and family members. Later, when I was a minister in a congregation, the fact that I had been practicing those kinds of specific compliments helped me pay attention to what was going on. I tried to notice what people were doing well in their congregational ministries and in other activities, and I worked hard to find specific things to notice and mention.

This week one of my Māori students mentioned a Māori proverb: He tāngata kitea, he tāngata ora – A person seen is a person alive. Part of what I love about my husband, Dave, is that he sees me. He notices moments when I show love or kindness to people, and he mentions those moments to me later. When I speak or preach, if he’s in the audience or congregation, he often tells me something I said that he appreciates. This noticing makes me feel so loved, and I feel encouraged to continue to do the same kinds of things.

In the interview where Eugene Peterson said the words above, he was contrasting the role of pastors in getting things done versus being the kind of person who notices what God is doing through the people and the community. I wonder if most of us focus too much on getting things done in our roles as parents, spouses and friends. I wonder if focusing most of the time on the task at hand mutes the ability to see the other person – child, spouse, friends, family members – and what God is doing in them and through them.

What are the spiritual practices that help us see? Last week I wrote about the challenges of focusing on the past with faith and the future with hope, as well as living in the present as much as possible. The practices I mentioned last week – including breath prayer, thankfulness, reflecting on helpful scriptures – can also help us see because they show us down, help us set aside fear and regret so we can be more present to each moment.

Here are some things to watch for in the actions of people we love:

1. Acts of kindness.

2. Creative activities in many areas of life.

3. Acts of perseverance, faithfulness and risk.

4. Innate personality attributes and how they manifest themselves (such as seeing the big picture, being good with details, thinking analytically, considering the impact of actions on people, being organized, being flexible).

Then, after you see these things, mention them to the person in your life. Let that person know that you see him or her. A person seen is a person alive. A person seen feels encouraged to show more love, act more faithfully and use their gifts more often and more fully.

(Next week: moving from that moment of thinking about praying to actually praying. Watercolor by Dave Baab, the wonderful husband I mentioned above. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

[1] from a talk at Catalyst West, 2011 about being formed as a pastor. You can listen to it here.



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