Step Back and Pay Attention

Is it time to pay attention? When do you decide to what your attention is focused and to what you let slide over the outside of your ears and eyes and heart into oblivion? I was on a couple of planes last week and as they started into the explanations around how to latch the seatbelts and something about cushions and flotation devices and how to put on your own oxygen mask before you help those around you and where the lifejackets are and how to put them on and inflate them and not to do that while you’re inside the plane. I noticed that not everyone was giving attention to the attendant dutifully performing each act needed in case of an emergency situation. We were not going to be flying over any bodies of water geographically, yet the attendant put the bright yellow vest over his head, snapped the enclosure around his waist, fake pulled on the red tab for inflation and then put his lips near the blow tube in case the automatic inflation didn’t work. I wondered what was going through his mind. Most if not all the passengers were still texting or surfing or reading. The guy up a row and across the aisle had already started a movie and since he had subtitles going, I was surreptitiously watching with him until he sensed it and gave me a side-eye-stink-eye backward glance and I pretended to have a coughing fit because it just seemed the thing to do at the time for both our sakes.

I knew the nice young man in the middle seat of my row dressed in military fatigues didn’t have full attention to the instructions because the woman in the window seat had already thanked him for his service, shared that her son that was about his same age was without direction or purpose in his life. And could he tell her how he decided to go into the military and if his folks helped him make that decision and did he feel good about it? And if he did was he ever willing to email or visit with someone like her son to tell him what it meant to grow up and be willing to work and maybe even serve your country? He may have been relieved that she really didn’t give him a chance to answer the questions she was asking because she simply kept talking without really pausing to give him time to say anything. Her son was currently continuing to live at home and while they were making him work it was at a minimum salary job which meant he wasn’t likely to be able to move out even if he would ever be motivated to do so. I’m not kidding, she had given him, and vicariously me, all this information BEFORE we even taxied out to the runway to take off. He did a lot of smiling and respectful nodding and never really said anything. I did a LOT of smiling and he perhaps wished he could use some non-violent combat techniques on me for being a bit unfairly entertained by his situation.

Interesting what captures our attention and when. There are days I find myself quite aware of the clouds or blue sky out my office window and other days I’ll get home after dark and not really know what it was like during the daylight hours. There are days I’m quite aware of all the sounds happening in the office with the coming in and out of people and deliveries and muffled conversations across the way and other days I couldn’t tell you if there had been any deliveries, conversations, or people alive and moving in the office or anywhere else in the world. It doesn’t seem to always be a conscious decision as much as what is happening in the schedule, and at the same time, I also think it has to do with where we are spiritually. There are mornings I’m walking Buddy at first light when every sound, every smell, every movement catches my attention, and other mornings my head is filled with what’s happening at the border, what’s happening in Syria and Yemen and Turkey, what’s happening with all those people in Indonesia from the Tsunami and adding my prayers to everyone’s that we find a way collectively to care that has a chance at making a concrete difference in the direction of the world.

How do we balance our attention to the big and the little and the and the mediums of our days? Without over-arching visions and goals, we live from day to day without so much noticing the passage of life. And yet if we only focus on our visions and goals, we miss being fully present in the quickly passing moments that may be filled with a kind of beauty that cannot be captured but is way too precious to miss. Is the value in the journey or in the destination? Yes. Is the value in the planning and the working and the relating or in the successes and the failures and the evaluation of history? Yes. Is the value in the championship or in the regular season? Yes. Am I equivocating? Perhaps *snort* Or perhaps there is truth to be found in the attention to detail and the willingness to step back for a broader perspective.

I don’t know if you remember the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. It came out in 1986, and while it was/is a teenage coming of age comedy, the deeper meaning of perspective and joy and purpose and deciding what is worth attention and what is not is a bit profound. In a scene in the Chicago Art Institute, Ferris’ best friend Cameron who is scared of his dad, his future, and of his own life, is staring at a painting in the pointillist genre by George Suerat called, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” (don’t worry, I looked it up, I’m not quite that artsy!). Anyway, what I remembered about it was Cameron standing at a distance from it with a broad perspective, the movie jumped to another scene, jumped back and he was closer, jumped to another scene, jumped back and he was closer until finally he was so close he and you couldn’t tell it was a picture. John Hughes, the writer, co-producer, and director later said that the pointillist style of art is true of many things – even films, that, “You don’t have an idea what you’ve made until you step back from it.”

Maybe that’s what the rhythm of what captures our attention and what doesn’t in any given time or chapter of life means. There is a time to be mired in details to the point where we can’t see any kind of larger picture, and the accomplishment of the small tasks and the beauty of those is what gets us to the next chapter. And then there is a time when the larger picture is the only way we can catch a vision of our purpose, the direction we’re moving, and the value of the creativity and work it’s taking us to get there. And God knows we need both.

As we continue as a denomination a bit mired in the throes of how we understand scriptural authority and credible and faithful interpretation, I so much believe that there is value in the details of a story of Jesus walking on water, or Abel’s blood crying out to God from the ground, or Saul/Paul being struck blind on the road to Damascus. AND I so much believe there are broader understandings about our faith calling us to risk what may seem impossible, to recognize that our actions have consequences from which the Holy seeks to name beyond the dis-ease of secrecy, and that those things that seem blindingly overwhelming may in fact be the moments from which our vision is broadened toward a new clarity of relationship to God and the world and one another. Does our call to attention from the perspective of faith have to be either/or?

I wonder if the young man in fatigues has called the woman’s son and cajoled him to listen to his parents and find a purpose in life through the military. I wonder if our smart phones have made us any smarter. I wonder if the increase in natural disasters is a clue to the broader issue of environmental change. I wonder if allowing scripture to move beyond the concrete details of each story helps it to be a timeless treasure relevant to every new generation who has a chance to experience it. Those are rhetorical questions that I’m guessing you know how I answer – that is, if you’ve been paying attention?