The Ministry of Paying Attention

How we condition our hearts to experience God

When I think of seasons when my heart was well conditioned and in a routine of regular spiritual exercise, I’m reminded of a time when I’d go to a small closet under the stairs of my childhood home. As a teen, I’d light a candle, journal my prayers, and check off the boxes for daily Scripture reading. In that cozy space, I learned the disciplines of experiencing God. Yet when AP classes ramped up, and I found a boyfriend, and later, when the demands of work, marriage, and children grew numerous, I wondered how I might nurture a vibrant spiritual life amid the pressing needs of my daily routine.

 

We can tend to think of conditioning our heart as a checklist of activities from Bible reading to moral living or deeds of mercy. When our spiritual practices don’t fit into busy schedules or our emotions overwhelm, we generally try to work harder checking off those boxes or throw them out altogether. What if we instead thought of the Christian life in terms of the concrete images Jesus Himself used—like the reaping and sowing of a field, or like a house with many rooms?

But how do we do this? It starts small: We practice paying attention.

Focused awareness can help orient us in both our solo times with God and interactions with others. It can soften our heart for the things that God Himself loves and incline our tone and action towards the people He would have us care about. It is as we become attentive—to the world around us, to the needs of our neighborhood, to our own emotions, to the Word of God—that we embody this “inhale-exhale” posture of the Christian life. Paying attention is what holds our spiritual practices together.

I wondered how I might nurture a vibrant spiritual life amid the pressing needs of my daily routine.

In Luke’s gospel, we read of Simeon, a man who moved his feet where the Holy Spirit told him to go, who gathered the baby Jesus in his arms and praised God for the blessing of witnessing that prophecy fulfilled. Simeon’s life was characterized by waiting, holding on to life just long enough to see the enfleshed Messiah—the King who would make everything right. Luke tells us that after the Spirit led him into the temple that day, Simeon beheld the long-awaited infant Christ and prophesied: “A Light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel⁠” (Luke 2:32).

We crave epiphanies, intimacy with Christ, a spiritual life of holiness that is characterized by increasing good works, and growth we can measure. Yet Simeon (like the prophetess Anna in Luke 2 and so many others in the Bible) no doubt had. But because he was so in step with the Spirit of God, he was able to listen, show up at the temple at the required moment, and speak blessing and prophecy over the Messiah. His spiritual practice was watchfulness.

The righteousness Luke credits Simeon with must have begun with him asking questions (like God, is this the Messiah?) and then developed by allowing his schedule, dreams, and desires to be shaped by something other than the mere checklists of the Pharisees. Simeon stayed close to the temple and maintained continual conversation with God. He was not in a hurry; he waited.

Because Simeon was so in step with the Spirit of God, he was able show up at the temple at the required moment, and speak blessing over the Messiah.

The great reset of a global pandemic is an opportunity to slow down, to practice habits of watchfulness, orienting our time around the things of God as we wait. To choose prayer before checking our email. To sit in silence and stillness before opening Scripture, as we come into God’s presence with reverence for who He is. To bring all our questions to our Father and then wait to see what He is already doing—not what plans we can conjure up.

Here are other ideas that may spark some of your own:

  • Pray as you take a walk.

  • Practice putting away your phone so you can be attentive to the natural world.

  • Read a chapter of the Bible with your children around the dinner table, or over a Zoom call with friends.

  • Listen intently to the words of everyone you talk to, so you can care for them—instead of listening for an opportunity to talk.

  • Embrace more silence in your life, giving yourself more room to hear God speak.

As we practice slowing down to see and listen, we’re likely to encounter stories of hurt—our own and others’.  We are free to bring our griefs (and theirs) to Jesus and ask for transformation. We can share our moments of yearning for God’s presence and can also step out and do acts of mercy, even if we’re scared of doing it “wrong.” We can read the Bible and stick with the story of God, even if we do not hear His voice speaking.

These are the slow movements of paying attention. We notice. We bring our whole self to God and extend our whole self to others. We trust that the same Spirit who testifies to our adoption as an heir of God’s kingdom also interprets our confusion and groaning. Our job is to practice prayer, expecting God to show up and lead, just as He did with Simeon.

Yes, our job is to pay attention and watch God work—however long it takes.

 

Illustration by Adam Cruft

Related Topics:  Intimacy with God

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32 A LIGHT OF REVELATION TO THE GENTILES, And the glory of Your people Israel."

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