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A memory of my inattentiveness has stayed fresh in my mind from twenty years ago. My church had decided to publish a photo directory and we all needed to appear for our fifteen-minute slot with the photographer. As I dashed in late for my appointment, I flew by a woman who was standing at the door to direct me to where I needed to go. "Are you always in a hurry?" she asked. I sent a lame excuse and a slight grimace her way as I continued on my way, a little embarrassed that she had clearly observed me other times in this same harried state.
Had I been paying attention, I might have heard the woman's question as a whisper from God, a voice of wisdom warning me of the head-on collision that was ahead of me. But I wasn't at a place where I was ready to listen. Not yet anyway.
A couple of years later I began to reckon with the stress I'd routinely been putting myself under by rushing from one activity to another. The costs of not paying attention came into focus for me. The highest costs were a concerning lack of self-awareness (it's impossible to develop self-awareness when you are constantly running!) and a disappointing record in personal transformation. But with these in focus, I was finally in a very teachable place to learn the importance of paying attention.
Moses' learning curve
Moses also had a growth path to follow in the area of paying attention. Our first glimpse of Moses as an adult is as a brash and impulsive man trying to come to grips with his identity (Ex 2:11-15). After having killed an Egyptian for mistreating a Hebrew, he runs for his life and spends forty years in the wilderness before the narrative introduces us to a more attentive Moses. When he comes across a bush which is on fire but doesn't burn up, he says, "I will go over and see this strange sight--why the bush does not burn up (Ex 3:3)." A careful look at the text reveals that it is only after Moses notices the phenomenon and then turns aside to give it his full attention that the LORD speaks to him. This encounter, which ushers him into a whole new world of leadership, depended in some way on Moses' readiness and openness to notice God at work.
In her book, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Ruth Haley Barton suggests that it took the solitude of the wilderness to shape Moses into a man who was ready to pay attention. It often takes a wilderness experience to shape us as well.
Many of us are choosing to live lives that do not set us up to pay attention, to notice those places where God is at work and to ask ourselves what these things mean. We long for a word from the Lord, but somehow we have been suckered into believing that the pace we keep is what leadership requires. We slide inexorably into a way of life that offers little or no opportunity for paying attention and then wonder why we are not hearing from God when we need God most.
(Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, p 62)
I wonder how many of God's initiatives I have missed as I've rushed from one activity to the next, my head busy with responsibilities and full of concerns, while my soul was crying to hear from God.
Solitude and silence
The spiritual disciplines of solitude and silence are particularly effective in helping spiritual leaders develop attentiveness. Solitude and silence forge a pathway for stilling the soul, which is precisely the posture needed to be alert to the still small voice of God.
Solitude opens up a spaciousness which allows for a review of our lives and our leadership, an honest look inside to see what is needing our attention. The choice to be silent awakens other faculties besides our speech, opening up our eyes and our ears to see and hear what we have been missing. It also quiets the will and opens up the possibility of greater surrender, which might be just what God is waiting for on the pathway of our transformation.
What does it take?
The discipline of paying attention simply does not come easily. Likely we have to come to the end of a rope before the recognition that we're missing something hits us and the desire for transformative communion with God takes root and moves us into action.
Desperation of some sort ignites the willingness to open up space for God. Our resolve to adopt a posture of listening is a grace, a gift that God delights to renew with each new day. As we pursue this path we become aware of our need for honesty and courage to face things which we have ignored or denied. These too are gifts of grace on the transformative journey of communion with God.
Practising paying attention
Doing a daily review can be really helpful in developing any new discipline. Here are a few questions to consider as you reflect upon your day and prepare to be more attentive tomorrow:
How have the demands of leadership hindered (or helped) your effort toward attentive living? What spiritual practice could you recommend to others seeking to grow in the practice of paying attention?
Spiritual leadership with Miriam Phillips
Conversations about the inner life
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