The Cost of Paying Attention

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Listen while you read

My father loves to hunt back in Arkansas. It is very much a ritualized part of life there, sometimes with school being out for the first day of deer hunting season. A big deal.

He took me hunting with him one time. One time…

I had always loved being out in the woods, but I never liked to hunt. This one day, my dad decided to take me, so we went out and climbed up in the deer stand. There we were, some fifteen feet or so up, next to a tree. We each had a small stool to sit on, facing opposite directions. We each had our guns ready.

He kept whispering to me to look closely. “Pay attention,” he would say. Look around and see if you see a deer. He didn’t realize of course, that I had put my gun down and had pulled out a small book that I had sneaked up the stand in my jacket pocket. I was taking advantage of the silence….to read!

I didn’t notice anything. I would look out into the brown leaves, into the small saplings that were clustered here and there. I would look, but I didn’t notice anything. It all looked brown to me. My dad eventually caught me reading and was upset because I wasn’t paying attention.

“But I didn’t see anything,” I would tell him.

And he would try to tell me that I needed to look closely and pay attention to see the small changes, the spot of darker brown that would suddenly move, revealing the truth that what you thought was a shadow was actually a deer standing there watching you the whole time.

My dad taught me that there is a difference between merely trying to notice something and truly paying attention…

Imagine it, Moses out in the desert keeping the flock of sheep. It had to be beyond boring, to walk around and lead them into patches of grass and streams of water. And, oh the time to let your imagination go with the shadows and sounds of the desert. “Is that dark shadow really a lion?” “Is it a perfect hiding place for some danger that I should avoid?”

All that time on hands to walk and sit and see things…

But the text says that he saw something different that one day. There he was, I imagine him, going about another usual day of minding sheep, when something suddenly catches his eye—something unusual. Maybe it was a small glimmer of light dancing on the rock where he was standing…something moved, his eyebrows furrowed, and he stepped toward it.

The bush seemed to be on fire but didn’t seem to be burning.

“I must turn aside and look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?” says the translation from The Jewish Study Bible. So, he steps over and hears the voice of his Creator: “Moses! Moses!” And Moses says, “Here I am.”

“Do not come closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.”

I imagine all sorts of things flying through Moses mind at that moment. “What is happening? Is this real? Have I lost my mind after being out in the desert all alone with these stupid sheep? Where are my sheep!?”

Moses had an encounter that has become, over the past three thousand years, one of the greatest examples of a theophany—a manifestation of God’s Presence—within our larger tradition.

The phrase “burning bush” has become commonplace for us. Our children learn the story. Charlton Heston acted it out very well. A wonderful animated version of the story saw the Prince of Egypt encountering the glowing plant deep within a rocky alcove. We all know the story very well…

But I would argue, nestled within the story itself, is an important lesson about one of the important truths about spiritual practice. Right there, within the text itself, lies the lesson my father was trying to teach me in the deerstand—the same lesson that mystics and sages have been teaching us all for millennia.

Notice what happened to Moses. He was keeping the sheep, he noticed the glow of the unusual burning bush, he paused and turned and paid attention to the sight, and he encountered the Presence of God…and his life was forever changed—as was ours.

Did you notice it? Only after he stopped and paid attention, fully, to what he had noticed, did God speak to him and lead him into this new way of being.

Turns out my father was right all along: there is really a difference between simply noticing something and truly paying attention.

The mystics have called this crucial practice “Attentiveness” or “Mindfulness,” this practice of cultivating a deeper awareness of our lives…of the small events in our lives that often carry enormous lessons and spiritual truths about God’s intention and hope for us.

But we have to slow down…we have to pause….we have to stop. I hate to say that, if this were to happen now…if “Moses” were to have his encounter with the burning bush in our day and age, he would have simply snapped a photo on his phone, posted it on Facebook or Instagram, and kept walking…typing a quick note for his friends, “Hey…look what I saw today on my walk…weird, huh? See you at the Dairy Queen.”

Moses encountered God, which means that God was making Godself known to Moses…God was reaching out, manifesting Godself to this adopted fugitive prince. But it begs the question of what would have happened if Moses had not stopped and paid attention… who would have been the next shepherd to come by?

What Moses noticed was beyond what he could have imagined. Moses asks God for God’s name. [I always remind folks that God’s name is not God. God is a word, derived from Sanskrit and filtered through German that we use to describe the ultimate reality that gives life to all existence.]

“God,” or Yahweh as is written in the Hebrew texts, tells Moses that he is to tell the Egyptians “I Am who I Am has sent you.” In Hebrew, God says, “Eyeh Asher Eyeh,”…I Am who I Am…I will be who I will be….

Moses doesn’t so much get a proper name as he does a complex description of the divine nature… It may challenge our modern sensibilities to realize that Moses didn’t receive a definition that he could use to compete with others as much as he received an experience that reframed his entire existence…

Moses got out of himself and received a revelation of God that pulled back the veil a bit and showed Moses a glimpse of the ultimate nature of reality—the creative force that seeks to invite everyone into a space of freedom and creativity and compassion… “I have heard the cry of my people.”

I think it may shock us to realize that we don’t contain God…rather God contains us. We don’t control God. We can’t. It is God that gives us breath and life… But we have to get beyond ourselves. We realize that we so often settle for merely noticing because we are so often bound by our own egos…our own expectations…our own desires and ambitions.

Jesus bumped into this when he tried to tell the disciples who he was…as God Incarnate. They had a particular image of God that they held to so tightly, and Jesus told them not only that he would suffer and die and be raised…but that the life of faith—the practice of following him—meant that we must suffer as well!

The disciples had merely noticed that Jesus was someone special…that maybe he was the Messiah…. But they weren’t prepared for what they learned when they really paid attention…when they were attentive to the deeper truths of their own religious practice.

In our collect for today, there is a small phrase where we ask God to “increase in us true religion.” I’m intrigued by that… what do we mean by “true religion?” What words or images come to your mind? More and more I have come to see that “true religion” has nothing to do with a dependence on our own ego…rather, “true religion” becomes embodied when we see a glimpse of God’s grace in the world around us…..

And we pause…….

The Rev. Stuart Craig Higginbotham
Proper 17, Year A
Exodus 3:1-15; Matthew 16:21-28
August 31, 2014

One comment

  1. Indeed, spirit-filled attentiveness also proves to be an effective antidote against despair. Through God’s eyes, we can see the smallest, barest, beginnings of transformation. ~Ema Cynthia+

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