Time to pay attention

December 11th, 2018

Earbuds may go down in history as one of the most insidious devices ever invented. They draw us away from the world in which we are present into some other world. That other world may be a good one, but it is not the one we are actually in. [1] And to the extent we become patterned to live distracted lives, we run the risk of losing touch with where we are. One of the gifts of time is the invitation to be attentive to the present moment and to our current location. [2]

Henri Nouwen was once asked in an interview to define the spiritual life. He responded that it was impossible to do that in a a few words. But the interviewer persisted until Nouwen said that if he were forced to define the spiritual life, he would say it is paying attention.

His response was in keeping with a classic notion of spirituality: attentiveness. God invites us to use our time to pay attention. That invitation comes to us in the exercise of our ministries. In this post I want to offer you three ways by which we become increasingly attentive as clergy. [3]

First, we pay attention prayerfully. We clergy are quick to say, “It’s God’s church.” It only stands to reason that we would regularly check in with “The Boss” (not Bruce Springstein) about it. We are servants of God for Jesus Christ’s sake (2 Corinthians 4:5). Our primary attentiveness must be to God.

Simply put, that means prayer. As E. Stanley Jones described it — going to “the listening post” to get his “marching orders” for the day. Eugene Peterson repeatedly said that his primary pastoral responsibility was to pray, using the chief means of grace to pay attention. [4]. It is in prayerful attentiveness where we are given “eyes to see and ears to hear” (Mark 8:xx).

Second, we pay attention contextually. Eugene Peterson emohasized the connection between vocation and location. This attentiveness is rooted in the Incarnation, where Jesus came to “his own” (John 1:11), and shepherded his flock, calling his own sheep “by name” (John 10:3).

The importance of locality (a specific congregation in a unique place) moved Peterson to frame what he called the pastor’s question: “Who are these particular people, and how can I be with them in such a way that they can become what God is making them?” [5] By paying attention to our context we discover the soil into which the seed of the Word is meant to grow.

Third, we pay attention patiently. The soil/seed metaphor (indeed, other metaphors from nature) calls us into living and working patiently with those whom we are called to serve. It is a patience we first give to ourselves (vs. a frenetic attempt to do too much too fast, which only leads to superficiality), and then we give it to others. [6]

Natural growth occurs incrementally over time. It emerges in the course of a journey more than in the conduct of an event. Like nature, it is a seed sown, germinating, sprouting, developing, and only then–harvesting. That’s why so much of ministry is waiting (dreaming, hoping, tending, weeding), and we only wait well (Joyce Rupp calls it “walking in a relaxed manner”) by being patient. Patience is a disposition which breeds attentiveness because it enables us to find joy in little things and to genuinely rejoice in small advances.

Prayer, context, and patience increase attentiveness in us and in our ministry. They save us from “hurry sickness” and from living distractedly so that we fail to fully realize or appreciate where we are.


[1] I am exaggerating the earbud image to make a point. There are, of course, times when earbuds take us into a world of relaxation, a world of learning, etc.

[2] Living in the present moment is extremely important, and we today are so incessantly lured to lead distracted lives, that I have chosen “Here and Now” as the 2019 Oboedire theme. It will appear each Wednesday, beginning on January 2nd.

[3] I am grateful to have read about all three in the writings of Eugene Peterson, and seen them lived out in his life. I’ve been thinking a lot about him since he died on October 22nd.

[4] Peterson went on to say, live, and teach that (on the basis of his own life of prayer) his primary pastoral duty was to teach his congregation to pray. This meant individually and collectively in worship.

[5] Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor (Word Publishing, 1989), 11.

[6] Peterson wrote a lot about this in his pastoral trilogy: Working the Angles …. Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work …. and Under the Unpredictable Plant.

About the Author

Steve Harper

Steve Harper taught spiritual formation and Wesley studies to Christian divinity students for more than thirty years read more…
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