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)