An Invitation to Pay Attention - Reservoir Church
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Children of God in a Fractured World

An Invitation to Pay Attention

Steve Watson

Feb 25, 2018

Introduction: Reservoir Visits Asha

Hello, I’m Steve, one of our pastors here at Reservoir. I was away last week because I was in India for a week with a few friends from Reservoir. We were visiting a partner organization called Asha that does sustainable community development work in the slums of Delhi, transforming people’s lives and encouraging people to live by what they call the Asha values: empowerment, non-violence, compassion, joy, simplicity, justice, dignity, gratitude, generosity, optimism, and the power of touch. It was awesome. I’m sure any of the seven of us who went would love to tell you stories that inspired us. Let me tell you one.

We spent most of the week in a slum community playing with kids and talking with students and women’s groups, but one day we went to Agra, the city of the Taj Mahal, as tourists. And two graduates of Asha’s youth programs came with us. One was my friend Shiv, who is one of the very few kids from his slum community to not only go to college but to go on to earn a Master’s degree.

Shiv is an upbeat, bright, funny young man. He lives and breathes the Asha values, totally embodies them. In fact, his main hope for a spouse is that his wife live these values as well. Shiv grew up in a slum called Seelampur colony where tens of thousands of people live in small concrete one-room apartments, with no running water and low public sanitation. It’s loud, it’s crowded, there’s trash everywhere. Shiv has a professional job now, but he still lives in Seelampur with his family still, because he’s waiting to move out until his sisters get married and he can take his parents with him.

At one point in our trip, we were driving by a row of middle class apartment buildings and Shiv said, I am so lucky that I grew up in a slum community and not in one of these apartments. Because if I hadn’t grown up in a slum, I would have never met Asha, and my life would be so much worse. Shiv’s life is so full of joy and power that he is grateful he was raised in a community most residents of Delhi won’t let their children even walk through. Because that’s the community where his life started to become spiritually rich. And that’s been the foundation everything else in his life is built upon.

I. It’s Hard to Pay Attention

We’ll come back to Shiv in a moment, but today I want to talk about paying attention. It’s hard to pay attention. It’s famously been getting harder in the time and place we live in. I was talking about this with one of the teachers I supervised when I was a headmaster at Watertown High School, and he said to me: to be honest, Steve, I can’t read a book anymore. I used to love to read, but the Internet has changed my attention span. I can’t focus on just one thing anymore, one thing that goes for hundreds of pages. And I can’t click on the words and have them take me other places. So I look at stuff on my phone, I don’t read books anymore.

This was a high school teacher. But he’s not unusual. Most of us are tethered to our phones. We look at them dozens, maybe hundreds of times a day. They are our companions in our waking and sleeping hours. We are so distracted that a few years ago, a study reported that many people would prefer to administer electric shocks to themselves rather than sit alone with their thoughts. Seriously, folks in this study were given time in a room alone. Previously every single one of them said they would pay money to avoid an electric shock. And yet, with nothing but this electric shocker they were hooked up to, when given 15 minutes to sit there with their thoughts, many of the women and most of the men were so restless and distracted, that they shocked themselves, just to avoid the quiet and the thoughts in their own heads.

It’s pretty funny and kind of disturbing, isn’t it? But what if our distractibility and restlessness aren’t just quirky things about the times we live in but symptoms of a much larger and more serious problem of dis-ease with our lives. When I’m around a person who is as focused and joyful as my friend Shiv, I feel this. Because I wonder what I’m missing out on in my inattention. In my scattered attention to my newsfeed and my entertainment and all things urgent in my life, what currents underneath am I missing?

Today, near the start of our 40 Days of Faith, I’m giving you an invitation to a habit that will undergird anything else good that you access in this season. I’m giving you an invitation to pay attention. To break the regular distracted rhythms of your life to look for the deeper and more important things that are calling out to you.

40 Days of Faith is our version of the six weeks before Easter called Lent, which in churches has historically been a time for just this sort of thing: to make some shifts in our ordinary life to be formed into more mindful people, more spiritual people, who notice and attend to what God is doing.

Last week Ivy kicked off this season so well. I haven’t even listened to her talk yet, but just reading the notes on our website, really just skimming them, I was tearing up, it’s so good. As Ivy was inviting us to name our fears in this crazy-making world of ours, and to embrace some spiritual practices to press into joy in the midst of those fears.

We’ve called this year’s season Children of God in a Fractured World, because we want us all to find this way of life, to be shaped into people who know that a good God is with us in hard times. And who are people who experience ourselves and call others to better ways of being in a fractured world.

So Ivy invited us to the stuff that makes up this season – considering fasting; reading and praying in the daily guide we produce for the season, this year reflections on the Bible’s final book of Revelation; asking God each day for things you and your non-churchgoing friends need; and doing that along with others.

If you missed last week, or haven’t started yet, please do consider joining us from this day forward for these 40 – at this point more like 35 days – of this season. I promise you’ll find it rewarding. It’s not at all too late to start.

Revelation begins with a vision of Jesus. The author named John imagines Jesus as this stunningly powerful and beautiful person – face like the sun with eyes of fire, strong and steady on legs and feet of bronze, wise and ancient with a voice with the power of sword and the sound of many waters.

And then John says this same Jesus is with the churches that gather in Jesus’ name. In fact, Jesus is also a pen pal. He’s writing letters to seven churches in John’s region – this number seven representing completion or perfection for John means this probably represents all the churches in the world then and now. Jesus has things to say to us.

These letter in Revelation have a common format – after reminding that Jesus is speaking, they have an affirmation, then a correction, then a promise, followed at the end by an urge to pay attention.

Let’s read the last of these seven letters. It’ll be the focus of tomorrow’s entry in our Bible guide, so you’ll get a head start here. It goes like this:

Revelation 3 – Laodicea
14“And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation:
15“I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. 16So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 17For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. 18Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. 19I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. 20Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. 21To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. 22Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”

So maybe the word that sticks out most here is “lukewarm.” We here that word and think indifferent – not for or against, just meh –impassionate. But in John’s first century Greek, lukewarm wasn’t an idiom for indifferent. More likely, it meant unhealthy.

Laodicea was about six miles away from some hot springs, whose water trickled down to the city. Those springs were great for drin king or bathing or cooking water, but if you had a hard time getting there, and drank the lukewarm water that showed up outside of Laodicea, you’d get sick. It would be lukewarm, and bacteria-ridden and foul tasting. So you’d want to spit it out of your mouth.

John’s letter to Laodicea, which is the only one that is all correction and no affirmation, tells the Laodicean church community, you are like this. You are unhealthy and sickly. Which would have been weird for them to hear. Because they were not in their minds the church in bad conditions. Their city was not like those slum communities in Delhi I told you about, they were more like us in Eastern Massachusetts. They were one of the wealthier cities of their empire – famous for their banking and clothing and ophthalmology industries. They thought they were rich. But John says you are not – you are poor.

This is a big theme in John. There are five books in Bible’s New Testament that are attached to this name. There’s the memoirs of Jesus called the Good News of John. There are 3 short letters – 1, 2, and 3 John. And there’s this book of Revelation. They were probably not all written by the same author. But they do share common themes and come out of the same tradition or community of authors. And for these authors, that we’ll just call John, this inside-out paradox of what’s on the surface vs. what’s true inside is kind of a big deal. That people who are rich may turn out to be internally poor, and people that think they see so well may often be psychologically or spiritually blind, and people that seem healthy can be very sick deep inside.

And to Laodicea, John is like, Wake up, pay attention.

Now, there are seven letters that capture the range of the audience of this book of Revelation. But many scholars say that churches in the 21st century developed world don’t really get to choose how we read the book. Because by far, we have most in common with church of Laodicea. We too are on the whole materially wealthy. But we are on the whole inattentive, unreflective, and spiritually poor.

II. The Examen – Seeing God-with-us

I’ve been thinking about this recently in my mid-40s. Because I’m not at the top of the chart in pretty much anything in life. Wealth, success, looks, friends, fame – you name it – there are plenty of people ahead of me in everything. Some of you are those people. You are special, people of Reservoir.

But on the whole, I’m rich. I have more clothes in my closet than I can wear. I have a warm, dry, secure place to live with plenty of space for everyone. I’ve got enough food in the kitchen that some of it will go bad before we even get to it. I’ve got an education. I’ve got some money in the bank, friends to talk with, and three children and a spouse who love me. Even if I had half of these things, I’d be rich.

But last year, again and again, I thought of how I wished my interior life was fuller than it is. A friend of mine a few years back talked about all the important things going on with his kids and his career, and said this is a time of life when I can’t afford to drop the ball on anything. It all really matters.

And my life’s like that too – in my work and in my relationships and in the management of my life, there’s so much that’s important that’s going on this season. And yet I’ve been noticing how distracted I am, how cluttered my mind and time can be. How I’m not as present to my life as I wish I was.

So this year, I’m doing something that comes out of the Jesuit Catholic tradition that’s like a 9-month long 40 days of faith. A program of paying attention to what matters and of spiritual transformation for a healthier, richer life.

And at the heart of this program is a twice a day practice called the Examen. It’s a self-examination where you look back on the past day or half day and notice the highs and the lows of life: what in your life right now stirs gratitude and joy, or regret and sorrow. Our daily Bible guide in Revelation each day ends with a short spiritual practice to try, and last week’s entries each day ended with a version of this practice.

And what I’ve noticed practicing the examen more often is that my day is more God-soaked than I ever would have imagined. It is just chock full of joy and expressions of God’s love to me. In my twice a day examen, I think of good food I’ve eaten, kind things people have done, work and play and rest I was grateful for. But I’ve also noticed that life is also more full of lost opportunities than I would have thought. I often remember moments where I was too distracted and lost time or opportunity for something important. I notice moments where I was in a jam and wished I had asked for help, or when I lost my cool or my temper. Or where I had this quick idea to do something great that would have taken courage, and I opted out, didn’t bother because I was too self-conscious or worried about how things would turn out.

The thing about the examen, though, is it’s a constant opportunity to not just pay attention, but to recalibrate for what’s next. Because the examen invites us to say thank you to God for all the good and to say sorry for all the lost opportunity or things done poorly, and then to pray for help and strength for the next day or half day.

And I was doing this once, and this idea came to me. That this couple I was going to run into the next day, who kind of go to this church, but more on the outskirts than integrally involved. I had this idea that when I see them, I should ask them if they would be willing to take off their shoes and let me wash their feet. And to tell them this represented that God and this church and me personally as a pastor were all in their lives to serve and love them. And to pray for them.

Now this wasn’t an entirely random idea. In John’s memoirs, he says that Jesus did this for his students and told them they should all do this for one another, be people who love and serve and empower people to go pay it forward – to love and serve others. But no one I know, like literally does this on a regular basis. Which is probably as it should be. It’s not a normal thing in our culture.

But in this case, in my moment of praying for the next half day, I had this strong sense this was what I was supposed to. So I was like alright. And the next day I saw this couple, and it was kind of a group atmosphere, so I said: do you mind if we have a moment in private. And we went somewhere, and I said, OK, this is a little odd, but would you mind taking off your shoes. And the weirder thing was, they just did it. They didn’t even ask me why. And I then I got down on my knee, and took a cup of water and a napkin I had brought with me, and said, I would like to wash your feet.

It was so weird, I didn’t dare look up and actually look them in the eye. But they didn’t move their feet anyway or say anything, so I poured a little water on each foot then dried them off and then I said my thing. I said I thought God wanted me to do this today to show them that I as a pastor, and this church, and even Jesus was in their lives to love and serve them, and we’ll be here for that. And I asked them if I could pray for them, and I did.

And you know what, weird as this was, nervous as I was when the idea first came to me, I was entirely at peace by now. I felt so connected to this couple, so close. I mean, unless you do pedicures for work, how often do you touch people’s toenails. I don’t wanna know. But I just had the joy of purpose, of doing the exact thing I knew I was meant to do in that moment of my life.

And turns out this was kind of a big deal to them as well. They were more delighted than creeped out by it all, and one of the two opened up to me about something really important they had to say. A way they are alone in life and need more companionship and prayer.

This is what happens in the examen – not necessarily the washing the feet part, that was quirky to me on that day. But the getting of our attention and guiding us to a spiritually rich life – to living in the moment, each moment, with joy and peace, and purpose.

That’s the point of these letters in Revelation. John saying that Jesus – the one who knows all truth, who knows all there is to know about everything, God included, the one that’s been at the heart of the universe since the beginning of time says to us, I am here. I am wanting to get your attention. I’m knocking.

While we are so numb most of the time, so distracted, trying so hard to avoid our lives, Jesus is knocking, inviting us to communion and connection.

That’s what’s going on with the imagery in this letter too. Laodicea again was famous for its gold, for its trade in wool, and for its eye salves – first century banking, clothing industry, and ophthalmology. And Jesus is like, you have all those things, but internally you are poor, naked, and blind. You lack inner wealth.

I think it’s so cool that Jesus knows us so well. Jesus knows our region of Greater Boston, how we are so famous for our universities and hospitals and technology. And yet Jesus gets the places where we lack wisdom and health and knowhow. Jesus sees where we’re distracted and afraid and calls us to a life worth living – a creative, calm, courageous, compassionate life.

III. Breaking the Rhythm

For most of us, to get there, needs correction, reproof, a breaking of rhthym.

Grace, when she’s seen me text or go on the internet on my phone while driving with kids in back, gives me strong words, reproof, correction. This is her wanting to get my attention for my good and the good of the whole project.

This is Jesus for us this season: knocking, urging us – can you break rhythm for a while and pay attention?

Jesus sees our technology driven, hyper-distracted, media-and-marketing-saturated age with more food and clothes and stuff than we can ever use and still more worry than we know what to do with. And Jesus says: stop for a moment, let me guide you to that life you want, that life that comes out of inner spiritual wealth, that leads to purpose, that leads to joy, that leads to a life and a community that can reshape and heal a fractured world.

Some invitations to pay attention

Can I give you just a few specific invitations in this regard? First, begin with 40 Days: take a look at the user’s manua and daily Bible guide. You can also visit a group this week as well.

  • If you haven’t chosen a way to fast yet, break rhythm from one of your distractions.
  • Pay attention when something lights up your mind or heart. Be curious about it.
    • Can be unexpected joy or sadness, an idea that comes to you, even a frustration you can’t shake.
    • The stuff that’s on our mind, and the desires of our heart are often how God is speaking to us, part of how Jesus is knocking. So instead of trying to avoid something that lights up our minds or hearts, or instead of just compulsively acting on it, we can be curious about it.
    • Not judge or evaluate, but just ask, huh… what is that that is speaking to me? What’s it saying? Might something be calling for my attention?
  • And finally: learn to pray the examen one to two times a day.
    • Welcome stillness, welcome God.
    • Review your day – pay attention.
    • Respond with gratitude and confession.
    • Pray for your tomorrow.

(The above is not an exact transcript of the accompanying audio, but the prepared text upon which the talk is based)