Learning to Pay Attention [Working the Angles with Eugene Peterson, part 2]

fullsizeoutput_ae1If we are to hold onto our identity and calling as pastors in North America, then we must resist the consumer-driven impulses that have infested our culture and even the church. We must become, as Eugene Peterson suggest, more than religious shopkeepers who keep the budget growing, the building improving, and the congregation busy. We must re-learn how to pay attention, not just in general, but primarily by paying attention to God. There are three pastoral acts that Peterson says are “so basic, so critical, that they determine the shape of everything else.” What are they? “The acts are praying, reading Scripture, and giving spiritual direction” (3).

These three pastoral acts are part of “the pastor’s responsibility…to keep the community attentive to God” (2). Peterson goes on to explain the way in which of those acts does this:

prayer is an act in which I bring myself to attention before God; reading scripture is an act of attending to God in his speech and action across two millennia in Israel and Christ; spiritual direction is an act of giving attention to what God is doing in the person who happens to be before me at any given moment.

Always it is God to whom we are paying, or trying to pay, attention. The contexts, though vary: in prayer the context is myself; in Scripture it is the community of faith in history; in spiritual direction it is the person before me. God is the one to whom we are being primarily attentive in these contexts, but it is never God-in-himself; rather, it is God-in-relationship — with me, with his people, with this person. (3-4)

This attentiveness to God in various contexts is difficult. As Peterson suggests, “great crowds of people have entered into a grand conspiracy to eliminate prayer, Scripture and spiritual direction from our lives” (4). This feels even more true in the thirty-year distance since he wrote this book. Distractions multiply like rabbits with the rhythmic clicking of a laptop touchpad or the frictionless swiping of a smart phone.

In a distracted culture, how countercultural is it for the pastor to be a person who is utterly attentive to God, self, Scripture, and others? Well, it so countercultural that many of us pastors are as distracted as anyone else, simultaneously immersed in our social media profiles and the endless notifications on our devices. When was the last time we knew what it was to truly enter into uninterrupted solitude with God ourselves? When did we last hear the voice of God whisper into our souls while we sat across from someone asking us for a word from God?

I have returned again and again to the cry of the psalmist:

Teach me your way, O Lord,
    that I may walk in your truth;
    give me an undivided heart to revere your name. (Psalm 86:11)

Lord, teach us pastors Your ways, and strengthen us to walk in your truth, that we might enter into the undivided heart that leads us to reverent attentiveness before You in our calling and ministry activity.

[This post continues my reflections on Eugene Peterson’s Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, which began here.]

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