Sunday, January 30, 2011

Paying Attention: Next Generation

     There was a child went forth every day,
     And the first object he looked upon and received with wonder or pity or love or dread, 
     that object  he became,
     And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day… 
     or for many years 
     or stretching cycles of years.

     The early lilacs became part of this child,
     And grass, and white and red morning glories, and white and red clover, 
     and the song of the phoebe-bird,
     And the March-born lambs, and the sow's pink-faint litter, and the mare's foal, 
     and the cow's calf, 
     and the noisy brood of the barnyard or by the mire of the pond-side… 
     and the fish suspending themselves so curiously below there… 
     and the beautiful curious liquid… and the water-plants with their graceful flat heads… 
     all became part of him.   (Walt Whitman ) 

I’m realizing that for me, any discipline I think of shapes itself in my mind in terms of those who demonstrated it for me, and those I want to share it with. There’s a generational aspect to this: we’re shaped by those before us, and we’re called to pass on what’s of value to the generations following us.

I’m deeply thankful for my grandmother’s example of attention to nature. Squirrel antics, bird calls, unfamiliar wildflowers, strange cloud formations: she treated the small occasions of nature like personal treasures. I can remember going to visit when she was in her seventies and eighties. She’d have things to show, treasures to share: a new groundcover she discovered, creeping its way under her shed. Or a baby maple tree, discovered growing along the road, potted and ready for a trip to a friend’s back yard.

Warm ripe tomatoes, eaten off the vine. A glass of iced tea under the lilacs to celebrate their fullest bloom. Those gifts of attention stay with me, and shape the way I view the world. I remember the afternoon, back in the sixties, when she pulled her Chevy convertible to the side of the road, to stop and see where the mockingbird was: she hadn’t heard one since her childhood in Oklahoma. And there it was, on a telephone line, singing its unmistakable song. I still think of her whenever I see, or hear, a mockingbird.

I’ve done my best to share that attention with our kids. They accuse me of dragging the family to “squirrel  museums,” and laugh that I signed them up for “nature tots.” I confess to both accusations. Now there’s another generation to pay attention to, and with. We prowl through Black Rock Preserve, searching for fossils, or poke sticks in the Black Rock pond, looking for fish. We visit the butterflies in the Springton Manor butterfly house, borrow nets to search for sulphurs and skippers, then head off to the fields to greet the goats and sheep.

Apple picking at the nearest orchard has been part of our family tradition since our children were small: wealth on a tree, followed by cider, cider doughnuts, and a baby pumpkin or two. Our own scraggly tomato vines prompt conversation about seeds, time, things we can control and things we can’t, the pleasure of a ripe tomato, the waste of picking one that’s not. A new Saturn peach tree surprised us last summer with a small harvest of perfect little peaches, ,and little Ellie surprised us by devouring her first peach in three quick bites.

My grandmother also taught me to attend to need: to look beyond myself and see the pain of others. There was nothing easy about her life, and yet I don’t remember hearing her complain. Instead, I remember her calling attention to, and insisting on kindness toward, those in need around us. Skippy – a boy older than us, but challenged in ways we didn’t understand – was always welcome in our yard. And if he invited us to his house, a block away, to see his monkey, or swim in his pool, a glance from Grandma would quiet our objections.

A multitude of pets helped me learn to pay attention. So did younger cousins. Children who have nothing to care for, no smaller living things to attend to, can miss the joy of empathy. Learning to make a cat purr, taking time to tame a parakeet, facing my own fear of the dark to go out at night to reassure an anxious duck, entertaining cousins while the grownups talked on and on: those were skills of attention I’m thankful to have learned.

And so I look for ways to pass those skills on to others. The parakeet and duck are incidental, but the ability to see what pleases another creature, and then provide it, seems essential.  The ability to see what’s needed in a situation, then finding a way to offer it, doesn’t come naturally. It comes through the trial and error of caring for a smaller sibling, friend, or cousin, the afternoons spent cutting and pasting to make a card or gift or other offering for someone sick, or sad, or lonely. It comes from helping to plan and prepare for a party or celebration, thinking about what might please the guests, then feeling good when everyone has fun.

Books are another way to learn to pay attention. Owl Moon was a favorite: a gentle book about looking for owls on a cold winter night. Miss Rumphius was another: about learning to see beauty, then finding a way to share it. The Alphie books, by Shirley Hughes, prompted conversation about what it means to be a friend, and how good it is to offer a hand, or a toy, or a kind word, just when it’s needed.

My husband grew up with a tradition of bed-time questions, and I learned a similar practice of reflection at a camp where I worked: What did you learn today? What was a thing of beauty? What are you thankful for? Quiet conversations at bedtime can prompt attention throughout the day. There are always new things to be learned, new beauty to celebrate, gifts to be thankful for, if we take time to pay attention.

Just a few minutes ago, the little girl next door rang the bell, selling Girl Scout cookies. She reminded me of my years as a Girl Scout leader, and set me thinking about how much I’ve relied on programmatic involvement as an avenue for engagement with the next generations. My grandmother was never a Girl Scout leader, camp counselor, youth leader. Yet, even in her eighties, she had young friends: the girls down the street she met on her walks, the children, and grandchildren, of people she’d led to Christ. In paying attention to nature, and to others, she was also attentive to openings God gave her, to share that attention, and to befriend those much younger.

It’s easy to focus our attention on those closest to us: our children, their children. Yet, I’m fairly sure their attention is enlarged by our own larger attention.  As I include them in reaching out beyond them, they reach beyond my own reach, until we have widening ripples, moving outward, with a deepening understanding of God’s love and grace, for us and the whole world around us.

   I tremble with gratitude 
   for my children and their children
   who take pleasure in one another.
   At our dinners together, the dead
   enter and pass among us
   in living love and in memory.
   And so the young are taught.  
                       (Wendell Berry)

Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments. 

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Paying Attention Part 2: Amos and Aluminum

In thinking about spiritual practices and daily disciplines, it’s occurred to me that if a practice is purely personal it somehow misses the point. That is, our practices in some way need to reach beyond us, or they become more about us than a means to engage with God and the world around us.

I find I go back to Jesus when I’m trying to evaluate an idea; his practices always brought him right back into the heart of God’s work in the world. He withdrew for fasting and prayer, only to face head-on assault and temptation. His daily times of solitude and prayer were preparation for the teaching, miracles, and confrontations ahead.

In talking about the practice of paying attention, in An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor talks about paying attention to food, where it comes from, the conditions that bring it to our table. She talks as well about the paper in catalogs, the realities behind the goods in those catalogs, and the need to approach even catalogs, or chicken dinners, with reverence:

“I understand why people snort at thoughts like these. I have laughed the same kind of laugh when people start talking earnestly about things I would rather not talk about. Reverence can be a pain. It is a lot easier to make chicken salad if you have never been stuck behind a chicken truck. It is easier to order a cashmere sweater if you do not know about the Chinese goats. And yet, these doors open onto the divine as surely as showers of falling stars do.”

I wonder, though, if there isn’t more to this idea of paying attention than bringing us to a place of reverence. It seems it should also bring us to a place of action.

In other words – if the things in our lives are brought there through processes that desecrate God’s creation, or that harm and abuse workers along the way, it may be that paying attention should be the first step toward change.

I was re-reading the book of Amos this week, as part of my Martin Luther King observance, and was challenged, as always, by the phrase King quoted again and again: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream." Streams start small, but gather strength. Righteousness starts as a trickle, then becomes an ever flowing stream.

Interesting that Amos was a shepherd and “dresser of sycamore figs,” his income clearly tied to the land and its proper use. In warning of God’s judgment against His people, he seems to be speaking to those who have stopped paying attention to the conditions that created their comfort:

"I will strike the winter house along with the summer house, and the houses of ivory shall perish, and the great houses shall come to an end,” declares the Lord. “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan . .  who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to your husbands, bring, that we may drink.” (Amos 3:15-4:2)

The words are harsh, and I would guess the women of Bashan, so unkindly called “cows,” would object that they had nothing to do with the poor or needy, hadn’t hurt anyone, and were simply minding their business, enjoying the good things God gave them.

Yet as I read and think about Amos’ words, I can’t help concluding that God holds us accountable for the source of the things we enjoy, even if we don’t really know where they come from, what they cost, who has paid in what way. "Hear this, you who trample on the needy and bring the poor of the land to an end.” He speaks to those who “buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals and sell the chaff of the wheat.” (Amos 8:4, 6). There’s exploitation here, of both people and land, and God is calling his people to give an account.

I’ve been conscious, for some time, of the exploitation that takes place in some of our daily products. Coffee, for instance, is often harvested by forced labor, sometimes by children, in conditions physically harmful to the workers and the environment. Am I responsible for paying attention to the journey from bean to cup? I believe I am, and buy my own daily Equal Exchange coffee at Ten Thousand Villages, a fair trade supplier committed to improving the quality of life of small cooperatives throughout the world. A recent Christianity Today article describes ways churches can be involved in seeking justice in this area. My own church, I’m glad to say, sells coffee supplied directly from church partners in Kenya.

So yes, I pay attention to coffee. But what about all the other things I eat and drink in a day? Cocoa is another product deeply implicated in child labor. How do I find cocoa that hasn’t been harvested and sold through exploitation of the poor? ? And chocolate? As much as I can, I buy those at Ten Thousand Villages from the same company, Equal Exchange.

And what about all the other goods that find their way into my home?

I had never heard of bauxite until a few months ago. As far as I know, I have none in my house. But I have plenty of the primary product of bauxite mines: aluminum. Bauxite is strip mined from the surface of the earth, or mined in open pits, then processed with heat, electricity, chemical catalysts, and large amounts of water. The environmental implications are huge: polluted water, acid rain, toxic air-borne dust, destruction of habitat, loss of topsoil, and a heavily metallic red sludge that is left when the process is over.

One account I read offered these numbers: for every ton of aluminum gained, 35 tons of bauxite ore need to be mined, and after introduction of clean water, the process yields 40 tons of red sludge and polluted dust.

I don’t understand the science behind it. What I do understand is that our inexpensive aluminum chairs, aluminum foil, pie plates, roasting pans and other products are bought at the cost of the health, environment, and long-standing way of life of poor people around the globe.

One other thing worth noting: aluminum is 100% recyclable. It’s incredibly costly to produce, but relatively easy to re-use.

So what does it mean to pay attention on this issue? An environmental blog discussing this in detail suggests:

 “Consider becoming an 'aluminum Scrooge' by using as little aluminum as you can, while recycling or re-using what you must use.... Find a lid for that yam pan! Give the leftovers to friends in re-usable containers! 

Recycling really changes the sustainability equation for aluminum. Despite its high recycling potential, however, just half of aluminum cans are recycled. Each one that is thrown away is like throwing away a full can of gasoline in wasted energy. And it’s not just about putting the cans in the bin; it’s about using less, and reusing what you can. It’s also possible to buy aluminum foil made of recycled metal. And, of course, to drink fewer sodas in cans.

 Think of it as a gift to the world’s rivers.”

I love rivers, and would love to save them. But the world is more complicated than that, right? And my recycling efforts won’t change the steady march of multinational business across the globe. Yet I need to start somewhere.

Two resources to help in paying attention, to this and other issues:

The Better World Shopping Guide. Book, iphoned app and website all offer advise on spending money in ways that honor workers, protect the environment, and care for communities. Our family has made changes based on what we’ve learned, and we've discovered some great new companies and products in the process.

My Recycle List  Website and downloadable iphone app give specific locations and ways to recycle almost anything.

Am I responsible for the whole world? No, just my footprint in it, and the footprints of those who walk with me. Which demands I pay attention.

          Stubborn Ounces”
            (To One Who Doubts the Worth of Doing Anything If You Can’t Do Everything)

             You say the little efforts that I make
             will do no good: they never will prevail
             to tip the hovering scale
             where Justice hangs in balance.

             I don’t think
             I ever thought they would.
             But I am prejudiced beyond debate
             in favor of my right to choose which side
             shall feel the stubborn ounces of my weight. (Bonaro Overstreet)

Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments. 

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Practice of Paying Attention

   Instructions for living a life:
     Pay attention.
     Be astonished.
     Tell about it. (Mary Oliver)

On my way to take the kitchen scraps to our compost pile this morning, I noticed an intricate highway of tracks crisscrossing our back yard. I spent a few minutes following them, trying to sort out the creators, then came in and spent some time on-line, googling animal tracks.

Apparently there are less deer in the yard than I thought, but with more ways in and out than I imagined. The red fox that leaves its scat along the border of our back path is still coming and going, but I hadn’t realized how easily it squeezed through a narrow place in the neighbor’s fence. And it looks like a raccoon has been visiting the locust tree nearest the compost pile, apparently with short side trips to see what’s available for dinner.

The squirrels and birds skate across the top of the snow, leaving delicate tracings of tiny prints. Our cat, Princess Fiona, rarely walks in snow, but she’s left a few tracks, near the edge of the house, where her path leads her deeper than she’d like to go.

How is it that I’ve been living here for over thirteen years, and never seen animal tracks in the snow? And how is that I’ve lived over half a century, and never noticed how weird deer tracks are? I’d heard they have cloven hooves, but had never really seen what that meant.

One of the books I’m reading this year is Barbara Taylor Brown’s An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. Her premise is that by consigning faith to church and overtly religious practices, we miss much of what God is doing in the world around us. As she says, “In a world where faith is often construed as a way of thinking, bodily practices remind the willing that faith is a way of life.”

One of the practices Taylor Brown offers is “the practice of paying attention.” For Taylor Brown, attention is closely linked to reverence: an awareness that we are not all there is. We’re not the center of the universe. We aren’t God. We’re part of God’s creation.

Annie Dillard, a strong practictioner of paying attention, caught my own attention when I was sophomore in college. I picked up Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, her Pultizer Prize winning account of a year spent stalking muskrat, beauty, and God Himself, in the hills and woods around Tinker Creek, in Virginia’s Blue Ridge mountains. I was intrigued by her attention to detail, her willingness to wait, and watch, to look beyond the disturbance on the water’s surface to see what was happening beneath.
I remember being entranced with Dillard’s desire to see God at work in his creation, to know his character through the reality of nature’s complexity and abundance. Trees, leaves, bugs, shells were all clues for her, of an invisible, powerful hand at work, through intricate processes, unexplained purposes. After pages describing textures of bird feathers, tree bark, various kinds of rocks, she paused to wonder:

“What do I make of all this texture? What does it mean about the kind of world in which I have been set down? The texture of the world, its filigree and scrollwork, means that there is the possibility for beauty here, a beauty inexhaustible in its complexity, which opens to my knowk, which answers in me a call I do not remember calling, and which trains me to the wild and extravagant nature of the spirit I seek.”

But seeing takes time. Even reading about seeing takes time. Taylor Brown laments this: "No one has time for this, of course. No one has time to lie on the deck watching stars, or to wonder how one’s hand came to be, or to see the soul of a stranger walking by. Small wonder we are short on reverence. The artist Georgia O’Keeffe, who became famous for her sensuous paintings of flowers, explained her success by saying ‘In a way, nobody sees a flower, really, it is so small, we haven’t time – and to see takes time . . . ‘”

It takes time to see animal tracks in snow, or how a flower is constructed, or what a friend might be thinking.

It also takes time to see where God might be working, to understand where he might be leading.

It’s interesting to me how much of scripture assumes an understanding of nature: descriptions of trees planted by rivers of water, psalms describing sun, moon, stars, weather, a vast array of living creatures, and what they tell us about God’s glory and power, prophecies suggesting that the health of creation is a reflection of our obedience or disobedience to God’s call, Jesus’ parables of wheat, vines, birds, flowers.

Is it possible to really hear God speak when we’re moving so fast we can’t even hear each other? Is it possible to understand what he’s doing when we’re moving too fast to see his hand in creation?

Jesus said “Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds!

He also said “Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.”

I went to Strong’s lexicon to see what I could find out about that word “consider.” The Greek word, katanoeÑw, means “to perceive, remark, observe, understand, to consider attentively, fix one's eyes or mind upon." In other words, pay attention.

I’ve had time lately to consider ravens, crows, flowers, butterflies, small children, tracks in the snow. And it occurs to me: when Jesus said “consider,” he didn’t mean “grab my point and move on fast.” He meant “slow down, examine, study, then follow the example of” things dear to him, parts of his creation that reflect his values, his care. That list includes ravens. Wild flowers.

Jesus said “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God.” As a birdwatcher, I’ve discovered that sparrows are among the most difficult to identify, the most time-consuming of birds. If you want to get to know sparrows, you’re going to have to hunker down somewhere and wait. Many birders write them off as “LBJ”s, little brown jobs, the least interesting, least important, hardest to identify. I’m still struggling to learn them.

Yet Jesus says even sparrows are of interest to God. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.”

As we pay attention, we find ourselves drawn closer to God, his provision beyond imagining, the grandeur of his vision, and the amazing reality that the God of the universe pays attention to our needs. Our own intentions are set in perspective; his plan for us gains focus and clarity.

Consider the sparrows. The ravens. The flowers no one planted. It takes time, yet just the change of focus can make it time well spent, an avenue into closer fellowship with God, and an occasion for deeper, more honest praise and prayer.

     It doesn’t have to be
     the blue iris, it could be
     weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
     small stones; just
     pay attention, then patch

     a few words together and don’t try
     to make them elaborate, this isn’t
     a contest but the doorway

     into thanks, and a silence in which
     another voice may speak. (Mary Oliver)

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Words for the Year Ahead

In the postscript to his new book, The Radical Disciple, John Stott, now late in his eighties, says good-bye to his readers, reflects on the future of books and their influence in our lives, and says “let me urge you to keep reading, and encourage your relatives and friends to do the same. For this is a much neglected means of grace.”

I have certainly found books, and reading, an essential means of grace. For the past decade, most of my reading has been very purpose-driven, centered on youth culture, spiritual formation in the next generation, ministry leadership, mentoring of volunteers.

I’m excited to enter a new year with a new book list, focused more directly on one question: how do we live out Jesus’ words in John 14 and 15? What does it look like to be Jesus’ friends?

And what did Jesus mean when he said “Anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing? He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.”

There seems to be a deep divide down the heart of the modern church - shaped in large part by our response, or lack of response, to Jesus' words. On one side are those who have decided that we shouldn’t take what he said too seriously. When we pray for the sick, we pray for patience and fortitude, not for healing. When we arrange our lives, we set aside a circumspect amount of time and money for “the church” and spend the rest as we like.

We read the parts of the Bible that seem reasonable and easy, and skim past the rest. Words of comfort and encouragement are find, but the parts where Jesus' followers struggled with hearing, and living, the faith they were given? As one youth parent insisted, quite seriously, and indignantly: “No one should allow youth to read Romans!”

On the other side of the divide are those eager to hear, understand and live in a visible way the radical words of Christ, those hungry for something deeper, more real: unexplainable demonstrations of God at work in the world; radical disciples whose purposes reflect a heavenly kingdom; genuine communities of believers who share each other’s sorrows, eat, pray, love together, and welcome the broken, the homeless, the aliens, the lepers of our day.

Books won’t get us there, much as I love to read them. And yet, there are faithful writers who hold signposts that point the way. So here are some books I’ll be reading. I’d love to talk about them with anyone interested, and put them into practice with friends nearby.

Scripture by Heart: Devotional Practices for Memorizing God’s Word. Jashua Choonmin Kang (2010. I’ve noticed that one of the fastest avenues to change, in my own life, is through memorizing scripture. As I make God’s word a daily prayer, the Holy Spirit uses that word to transform me in ways I could never do myself. Kang’s book, featured in this month’s Christianity Today, sounds like a way to dig deeper into this avenue of transformation. Reviews say it's not well written (it's translated, a little awkwardly, from Korean), but winsome and compelling.

Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home. Richard Foster (1992). I read this years ago, and in looking for a book for this list on prayer, have been encouraged to pick it up and spend more time with it. At the same time, I’m looking for something that goes deeper into healing prayer, so may be adding Andrew Murray’s classic The Ministry of Intercessory Prayer, (reprinted in 2001) which Foster has described as one of the best books he ever read.

The Radical Disciple: Some Neglected Aspects of Our Calling, John R. W. Stott (2010).   
At 88, John Stott has written his last reflection on the Christian life, looking at aspects of what it means to follow Christ that the church prefers to ignore: nonconformity, Christlikeness, maturity, creation care, simplicity, balance, dependence, and death. It’s a slim book (just 137 pages) but full of the wisdom of a lifetime of faithful study and witness.

An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, Barbara Brown Taylor (2009). “The daily practice of incarnation – of being in the body with full confidence that God speaks the language of flesh – is to discover a pedagogy that is as old as the gospels. Why else did Jesus spend his last night on earth teaching his disciples to wash feet and share supper?” Brown Taylor is interested in the place where faith meets the minutiae of daily life: how we see ourselves in the mirror, how we experience pain, how we listen, or ignore, the mundane life happening all around us.

Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as A Christian Tradition.  Christine Pohl (1999). I’ve been noticing how much people are hungry for someone to extend hospitality, to build community – to take the first step. This can’t be a “program,” instead it’s a practice that needs to be recovered by all of us. According to my favorite book blog: “This book is one of the most important books of the last several decades, and has gotten the gracious practice of hospitality renewed attention.  Very, very good, and so important!  We've got other great books on this theme, some perhaps even more practical, but I think this is the very best.  A must-read.”

Jump Into a Life of Further and Higher.  Efrem Smith (2010). I’m reading Brown Taylor to help think about discipleship in my own (literal) backyard, Pohl to extend that into my community and church, and Smith, pastor and practitioner in urban settings, to help me think about reaching farther than the circumspect lines of my suburban community: “This is socially engaged spirituality, faith lived out in the pain of a needy world, eager to know God and jump into the fray to be used by God.” 

Surrender to Love: Discovering the Heart of Spiritual Direction (2003), The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call to Self-Discovery (2004), Desiring God’s Will: Aligning our Hearts with the Heart of God (2005), and Sacred Friendship: The Gift of Spiritual Friendship and Direction (2004).  David Benner. The first three are short (just over 100 pages) introductions to aspects of spiritual direction. The forth is longer, and offers practical application of some of Brenner’s ideas in settings of friendship, small groups, and marriage. Since spiritual friendship, or “deep church,” is an idea I’ve been thinking about, I’m thankful for the introduction to Brenner, and looking forward to seeing where this leads.

I’m also thankful for other suggestions offered – and intend to dig into them along the way, commenting and recommending as I go. 

Heaven is Not My Home: Living in the Now of God's Creation. Paul Marshall (1999)
Living Like Jesus: Eleven Essentials for Growing a Genuine Faith. Ron Sider (1998)
Not the Religious Type, Confessions of a Turncoat Atheist. Dave Schmelzer (2008)
On Being a Theologian of the Cross. Gerhard O. Forde (1997)

The goal – always – is to hear clearly, to sconsider honestly, and to apply humbly the truth shared along the way.

God be in my head and in my understanding:
God be in my eyes and in my looking:
God be in my mouth and in my speaking:
God be in my heart and in my thinking . . .