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Paying Attention

Zechariah 7:9-12 "This is what the LORD Almighty says: 'Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. 10 Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other.' 11 "But they refused to pay attention; stubbornly they turned their backs and stopped up their ears. 12 They made their hearts as hard as flint and would not listen to the law or to the words that the LORD Almighty had sent by his Spirit through the earlier prophets. So the LORD Almighty was very angry. I think many people believe that to be spiritual we have to live a particular way, do particular things – strange things. We have to live in a cave, shave our head, meditate ten hours a day, and go without eating for long periods. We have to deprive ourselves, give away everything we own, and live as penniless beggars. Or we have to give up our way of life and serve others tirelessly. The problem with these beliefs is that it isn’t accurate; it isn’t Biblical, and it isn’t spiritual. Yes, our aim is to develop a deep and abiding relationship with our God. It is to overcome the distractions of self-indulgence and trivialities along this life’s journey and remain focused on loving God, ourselves, and our neighbors. Our intent, I think, is to share the light of Christ with those around us while not being absorbed by the selfish satisfactions of passing pleasures and achievements of our temporal earthly existence. And I believe we can do all of this and not live in a cave as a bald recluse eating only the broth of elm leaves. In fact, I think that is what every spiritual teacher has taught. Let’s look first at the Bible. We are told in Romans 12:1-2 -- I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. Here is how The Message, another interpretation translates that same verse: So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. We are asked to take our bodies, all that we are physically, and all that we do, and offer it to God. I believe we are being asked to find God in every moment of our existence. The only way I have found to be aware of God is to give my attention to God, to think about God, to consciously move my mind to God. Paul describes it this way: “Pray without ceasing.” (Thessalonians 5:17) In Romans we are told: Be glad for all God is planning for you. Be patient in trouble, and always be prayerful. I have to remind myself what this means: To constantly have my mind on God; to give God my fullest attention. Of course, we pray when things get ugly in life, but far better it is to pray constantly - when times are good, when things are going well, as well as in times of trials. We are to pray and think of God when we set aside specific times for our personal and private worship, but also when we are driving to work, as we pick up the phone to make a call or help a customer, when we are doing the dishes or laundry, or repairing the deck and gardening. We don’t have to shave our heads in order to find God, but we must make an effort to search for God before we can find God. This spiritual concept is evident in various religions. The Zen Buddhists have an ancient proverb: before Enlightenment, chop wood and carry water; after Enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. What this means to me is that God can be found in the most ordinary of moments, and once we have found God we don’t need to do anything special – we carry on our lives, only now with God as a constant companion and ally. To have a fulfilled and spiritually satisfying life does not require great acts, it requires great focus. It doesn’t take changing who we are and what we do and how we look, it takes only to change where we direct our thoughts. The Buddhist also say, “When hungry eat, when tired sleep.” I know this sounds absurdly simple, but really God is pretty simple: He is found right here, right now. When we live simply, we find God in every moment. When we are hungry and just eat, we can invite God to join us. But we normally spend our time not just eating, but thinking about work or our troubles, or we talk. It is part of our culture – to shove as much as possible of as many as possible activities into a single moment. Most of us don’t simply eat – we drift to wants, and needs, and desires. And perhaps we will never be able to make a mealtime a time of inner reflection and a God-awakening moment because of social constraints and etiquette. But maybe we can add a few more moments of God-focus at other times: when we are getting dressed or out walking. As adult humans we must practice living in the present moment, and not bringing our past into the present or yearning for a future that will never arrive. Scientists have studied attention in people. One study had participants watch a video of basketball players. They were told to count how many times the ball was passed by someone wearing a white shirt. During the video a guy in a gorilla suit comes out, faces the camera, thumps his chest, and then walks off. That is a nine second appearance. The study reveals that half of the people didn’t see the gorilla and some would accuse the researchers of switching tapes. Some people actually had their eyes on the gorilla for up to a full second and did not see it. Conclusion: Looking and seeing are not the same thing; it depends upon where we place our attention. As we bring our focus to this moment, we can become fully present in the simple needs we actually have to survive and can be fully awake to life as it is happening. We can hear the birds sing, the children play, and feel the wind blow against our skin and feel the presence and joy of the Divine in the “Now.” God is speaking to us at every moment of our lives, in the voices of the people we converse with, in the tasks we engage in, in the activities we pursue… while we chop wood and carry water. We are spiritual beings, and as such we can perceive this unseen and unheard connection with our Creator if we focus our attention that direction. Australian author, Karen Maezen Miller, says this: Your own attention is what spiritualizes things. Attention to the meal you cook, the clothes you wash. Attention is love. And that’s transformative.” Attention is not the same as analyzing. We don’t need to assess, critique, and judge a moment; we just need to pay attention to it. Notice the smells of the flowers, how our body feels and how the muscles move. We just need to mentally draw our mind to the situation and notice our feelings, the feelings of the person we are speaking with. We notice but don’t judge; we listen but don’t mentally prepare a counter-argument. Where we place our attention reveals where we are spiritually. The Buddha said: Pay no attention to the faults of others, things done or left undone by others. Consider only what by oneself is done or left undone. In Psalm 13:1 we are taught: Wise children pay attention when their parents correct them, but arrogant people never admit they are wrong. Are we wise children? To what or whom are we paying attention? What captures our focus, governs our actions and our life. The Bible uses the phrase ‘set your mind on” rather that use the word attention, but it means the same thing. In Romans 8:5 we read this: For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. Pretty clear, isn’t it? What we give our attention grows and strengthens; what we deprive our attention diminishes and withers. How we live is determined by where we place our attention, and to whom we give our attention. As we notice the good around us and within us, we are blessed with a new attitude. Change our thoughts, and we change ourselves, change our lives, and perhaps even change the world. The world, the physical, earthly world, is a Divine place. In Genesis we are told that God created the world and pronounced it good. It is not evil, except as our thinking makes it so. Perhaps our attention is being placed upon the negative and suffering, so that is all that we see. The good and wonderful of the world, even God and God’s nudging are like the gorilla in the study; it is there right in front of us, but we simply don’t see it. What the basketball-gorilla experiment also tells us, is that if we focus on Love, kindness, and goodness that is what we are going to see. If we set our mind on God, we won’t see the gorillas. When we allow the World to have its way with our thinking, we start to believe that we are different from one another, that our skin color actually makes a difference in how valuable we are, that our language or ethnicity actually defines how intelligent we are, that our gender orientation and who we love actually matters in the eyes of God. God sees us as one family, His children, all deserving, all capable, all worthy of love – loving and being loved. Our challenge then, is to set our mind on God, to give our attention to God. To chop wood and carry water with our mind on God; to eat when we are hungry with our attention on God. Setting our mind on God makes it possible to see God in every moment of the day, and aids us in loving the Christ more deeply as we express the love of Christ back into Creation. By focusing on God we are able to follow more clearly the Divine path that is laid out for us. By directing our thoughts to God, we can see that we are all one, that there is only unity at our soul level. Once that vision is attained all the other disagreements become easily managed. It is my prayer that we will courageously and lovingly face God, unstop our ears, and listen to God: to the written word, the spoken word, the inner nudges, taps on the shoulder, and divine guidance we experience within every moment. I pray that we allow God’s transformative Love to condition our hearts and minds so that we can follow God’s instructions: to administer true justice; to show mercy and compassion to one another; to uplift and empower the widows, orphans, aliens and the poor; and to not think evil of each other in our hearts. Simple really, when we are paying attention.


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