“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”Simone Weil
Attention, not bitcoin, is the currency of our times. Ad space, dopamine rushes, notifications that call us back to our screens or alert us to the live broadcast from our church. The pandemic further levelled the experience of many churches during lockdown to “one option among many” demanding our attention, our time, a tiny sliver of our lives. Many of us clambered to figure out the latest streaming software or effective lighting solution. Perhaps we tried singing together, unmuted, on Zoom. Once.
It is no wonder that so many pastors and church leaders are experiencing heightened levels of frustration, burnout, and depression. The church cannot compete on the stage of performance and production. Not because we cannot improve ourselves to match the polish of Netflix and Facebook, but because we cannot degrade ourselves to believe that only the most beautiful, articulate, sophisticated, and intelligent people or productions are worthy of our attention.
The Psalmist reminds us:
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.Psalm 19:1-4a, NIV
We need not fear “missing out” on anything, because the moment before us is already saturated with the givenness and with the generosity of God. Everything around us reveals the grace of God. All we need to do is to pay attention – to “prize” or value what has already been given. To pay attention to the people and the world around us is an act of revolutionary worship in a culture that constantly works to distract us from the beauty of the everyday.
In Luke 19, Jesus enters Jerusalem on the back of a common donkey, to fulfill the words of Zechariah,
“See, your king comes to you,
righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”Zechariah 9:9, NIV
Jesus is the King of the everyday and of peace, and in both Zechariah and Luke he is met with shouts of joy. Luke says that the people encountering Jesus praise God with “loud voices” – the Greek for which is also used for noises, expressions, and sounds. The religious leaders of the day are appalled and ask Jesus to make them stop. This is not the place or the time or the people to be making such a racket before God – and that’s apart from the seeming ridiculousness of praising a man riding a donkey into town! Perhaps they anticipated the Apostle Paul to say “God is not a God of disorder but of peace” (1 Cor 14:33, NIV). Yet the Prince of Peace himself was leading this ragtag gang of worshippers. God’s order is not our own, and the upside-down Kingdom is often led by those whom we might prefer to ignore or condemn. “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” the religious leaders demand. “I tell you,” he replies, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” Pay close enough attention, he instructs, and if we’re quiet we will hear even the voice of these silent rocks praising God.
I hear the crunch of snow as I step out for a winter evening walk. Countless shimmering stars pierce the inky skies South of Ottawa as my breath rises before me in a frigid cloud. I could sing lyrics about the indescribable ways God places every star and calls it by name, but this moment calls for my attention and not my words. It is in the stillness of my internal dialogue and the radical openness of my posture that I am open to the wonder of the experience before me.
Please don’t get me wrong. There are times and places where articulate expressions of Christian truths are appropriate acts of worship. There are moments when a song performed with excellence or a sermon preached with conviction are received as sweet incense before God. But it is an idolatrous act of religiosity to only pay attention to God’s workmanship within the narrow confines of professional, corporate worship.
Frederick Buechner considers the words of Psalm 148 when he declares,
The whole of creation is in on the act [of praise], the sun and moon, the sea, fire and snow, Holstein cows and white-throated sparrows, old men in walkers and children who still haven’t taken their first step. Their praise is not chiefly a matter of saying anything, because most of creation doesn’t deal in words. Instead, the snow whirls, the fire roars, the Holstein bellows, the old man watches the moon rise. Their praise is not something that at their most complimentary they say, but something that at their truest they are.
We learn to praise God not by paying compliments, but by paying attention. Watch how the trees exult when the wind is in them. Mark the utter stillness of the great blue heron in the swamp. Listen to the sound of the rain. Learn how to say “Hallelujah” from the ones who say it right.
I’m still learning to say “Hallelujah,” and maybe you are too. Maybe we can be a part of a community that learns to pay attention to the goodness and glory of God together, regardless of how our well-meaning institutions have taught us to in the past.
Come back next week for the continuation of this piece where Keith will share stories from his personal and professional life to illustrate the beauty of all kinds of worship.
Annie Dillard says Nature’s silence is its one remark. I think we underrate silence. It speaks so loud, if only we would listen. A profound message, Keith. Well done.
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