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Receptivity and offering: Our attention

Lynne Baab • Tuesday May 24 2022

Receptivity and offering: Our attention

If you look around online, you’ll find a growing body of articles and books on the question of attention. All of them highlight the challenge of the internet and cell phones. The experts writing those articles are right that attention is a topic of particular concern today. Here’s a quotation from one such article:

“‘My experience is what I agree to attend to,’ the pioneering psychologist William James wrote in the late 19th century. His observations about the mind, both detailed and sweeping, laid the groundwork for the ways Americans talk about attention today: attention as an outgrowth of interest and, crucially, of choice. James, we can safely assume, did not have access to the internet. Today’s news moves as a maelstrom, swirling at every moment with information at once trifling and historic, petty and grave, cajoling, demanding, funny, horrifying, uplifting, embarrassing, fleeting, loud—so much of it, at so many scales, that the idea of choice in the midst of it all takes on a certain absurdity. James’s definition, at this point, is true but not enough. The literature of attention updates his paradigms for the age of infinite scroll.”
—Megan Garber, staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers culture.

For people of faith, the question of attention has been central for millennia. Jews and Christians have always known about the human propensity to miss things that really matter or to focus on trivial or extraneous things. The Psalms encourage us to pay attention to God’s acts in history (Psalm 136) and his current sustaining of the physical universe (Psalm 104). The prophets encourage us to listen to God’s word that comes to prophets for the sake of the people of Israel (Isaiah 6 and Jeremiah 1).

In the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-23), Jesus says that the seed that falls on good soil is equivalent to the person who pays attention to God’s word: “But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown” (Matthew 13:23). The Apostle Paul’s personal story of seeing a vision of Jesus, then responding to what Jesus told him, is an example of paying attention to something very dramatic. None of these stories uses the word “attention,” but paying attention is clearly part of what is required to thank God, obey God, walk with Jesus, follow the leading of the Holy Spirit, and bear good fruit.

In a time of fragmented attention, the classic spiritual practices help us pay attention. There’s nothing like a fast – from food, cell phones, social media, other media, shopping, or some other component of daily life – to enable us to pay attention to the pattern of our lives and notice more about what God is up to. There’s nothing like the repetition of a Sabbath day to enable us to learn how to slow down and notice things that fly by us on work days. Spiritual practices can be as simple as taking a few deep breaths or as challenging as returning over and over to a sacred word in centering prayer. Christians have engaged in numerous strategies over the centuries in order to deal with distracting thoughts during prayer. The question of attention has been real for Christians for two millennia.

We don’t have to catastrophize about the problem of attention in our time. We Christians can draw on ancient traditions to center ourselves in God’s presence. We, like Christians year after year and century after century, can offer to God our desire to pay attention to the companionship of Jesus with us and the voice of the Holy Spirit in us. We are not alone as we offer our attention to God. We are accompanied by legions of angels and saints who are joining us in focusing our attention on the God who made us, loves us, and redeemed us in Christ.

(Next week: offer God our hearts. Illustration by Dave Baab: daisy on the Kepler Track, New Zealand. I love to get new subscribers. Sign up below to get an email when I post on this blog.)

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