Paying Attention to God
God’s invitation for us is to hear his voice, trust him in the valley, see his beauty, and receive his love.
The Christian life is about a muscle. Simon Vay said that the only way we can love people is if we know how to pay attention. The most generous thing we can give to somebody who is suffering is we pay attention to them. And she said it is very rare in our culture and difficult to pay attention to a suffering person because we are so bad at it. We would rather give them money and move on. So the center of this Christian life is this idea of paying attention.
The question I want you to ask you is: Am I paying attention to God? In other words, am I growing that muscle? Right now in your life are you growing that muscle, or are you distracted? In a sense, that muscle is diminishing. It is growing weaker and smaller. I know many people that used to read books that no longer read books; it takes too much concentration. They only read blogs and summaries of artists. There’s no kind of attention span anymore.
So Psalm 23 is an incredible psalm. It’s a psalm about paying attention to God, who pays attention to us. David had a lot of hardship. He went through civil wars, betrayals, adultery, king, shepherd, warrior. But somehow he was a man after God’s own heart that paid attention. He had developed that muscle.
Now, this is a poem. Psalms are poems. If you’re an artist here, it’s art. This is not meant to be read like you read the newspaper. This is poetry, this is music; this is song; this is verse; this is meant to be pondered and meditated on. What I want you to do is as we are reading is I want you to underline or circle phrases or words that stand out to you, that touch your heart. It might be the words, “still waters.” Or maybe it might be the “deepest valley.” So focus on whatever strikes you.
(Read Psalm 23)
Silent before God
So let me tell you what your assignment is going to be at the end of the sermon. I’m going to ask you for the next seven days to actually pay attention and every day do centering prayer or silent meditation. I’m going to ask you to take five minutes of silence to pay attention to God, and I’ll talk about how to do that. And then either after that silence or before, I’m going to ask you to take this psalm and read it through and let it speak to you. It may just be a line that stands out to you. It may be two lines; it may be a word. I like the phrases “The Lord is my Shepherd, I lack nothing.” “You prepare a table before me.” A table, a banquet table. “You anoint my head with oil.” Just let it wash over you.
Now, let me explain why I’m giving you this assignment. I’ve been reading for years on all the studies that have been done on how people change the neural chemistry of their brains. So in preparation for this, I read three books from neuroscientists about how silence and paying attention in silence changes our brain, changes our bodies, and not only if we do it consistently does it get easier, but the benefits for people are amazing throughout the day. Again, these are secular studies from Harvard, Stanford, all kinds of people doing it.
What’s amazing to me is that they say these are secular organizations calling people to pay attention. It changes your day in terms of more self-control, greater self-awareness, less triggered, better impulse control. They show studies which reveal that more gray matter is formed in your prefrontal cortex. You’re thinking, What’s that? Well, it’s the part of your brain that enables you to be focused and have greater self-awareness. They can see your brain change. They say that if you do this for eight weeks you will experience change, you will physiologically change and you will see the effects throughout the day. Contemplative practices strengthen specific neurological connections in your brain and thus social awareness, a sense of peacefulness, even greater compassion results.
Now, why am I mentioning this? Because when I read this I got upset and I threw my pencil down. Because as you know, in emotional healthy spirituality—I talk about the importance of the daily office and for two minutes every day you will be silent. So I’ve been doing this at our church. So every day I say, “How’s it going with the daily office?” “Oh man, pastor, so hard. I’ve got so much going on. I’m so distracted. …” That’s when I threw my pencil down and said, “That’s it, that’s it, I am not going to be apologetic anymore, and I am not going to be fearful to overwhelm anybody.” That’s why I’m going to ask you to start with five minutes for the next seven days. And actually, my prayer is that you move to 20. But I want to ask you to start with five, and I’m done with the two minutes. The promise is that if you will do this consistently over even eight weeks every day, you will see change. I promise you.
The way this psalm works is it starts out: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I lack nothing.” But then you’ve got four movements. The first, verses 2 and 3, show us we want to pay attention so we hear his voice. The next two verses after that, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley,” is about paying attention so I trust him in the darkness and difficult times. The third movement is I want to pay attention so that I can receive his love, because he prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies. The fourth movement is I want to pay attention so I can see his beauty all around me, which follows me day and night. Those are the four movements, and we are going to move through them and take them apart.
Hear his voice
Psalm 23 begins with the Shepherd/sheep theme. The heart of Psalm 23 is the sheep image. This image is all through the Old Testament and all through the New Testament. It’s interesting that God chooses this image, because countries have national symbols of animals, right? Russia has a bear. Ferocious and tough, don’t mess with me. The United States has the bald eagle. Don’t mess with us either—we will bomb you. England, they’re a lion, and the Great British Empire, they’ve still got the lion. It’s a statement about who they are.
What’s so interesting is that we have a national symbol. God gives us a symbol as his people: sheep. Of all the symbols he could have chosen, sheep. This is not very flattering. God says, “My people are like sheep. Dumb.” I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed, but there has never existed in human history a sheep trainer. Dog trainers, horse trainers, etc. Never once a sheep trainer because they can’t be trained. They’re never in the circus. There we are. Do you understand, a sheep can’t even find the safe pasture, they can’t find good water, they can’t rest. Without guidance they are done, they can’t go on; they’re lost. They are one of the animals least able to survive on their own. They don’t even know to move. When they finish eating a patch of grass and there’s none left, they don’t know they’ve got to go somewhere else. Some of you hate change: It doesn’t work? It doesn’t matter; I’m comfortable right here. Sheep are defenseless against enemies. Listen, they don’t have claws. They can’t run very fast at all. Ever see one running in movies? They can’t bite, and they so easily get frightened—even of a little rabbit, a little noise. A dog barking can send a whole herd out. So this first image is we as sheep have got to be paying attention because we have no idea where we’re going.
So when it says he settles me down in green pastures, many of you have read the verse that says, “He makes me lie down in green pastures.” Yeah, I got the flu, he put me on my back, and I’m lying down now. No, that’s not really what it says. Just so you know, you cannot make sheep lie down. It can’t be done. What it really says in the original language is “He settles me down.” What that means is when the Lord is my Shepherd, and he is leading me—I’m eating, I’m satisfied—and sheep lay down and settle down when they are fed, when they’re satisfied. They’re full, and it enables them to digest their food. That’s the only time they settle down. Then it says, “He leads me beside still water.” He doesn’t drive you, he’s not going to force you to go to the still water. Now, a sheep cannot drink from fast running water. A brook, a river, it’s got to be still. The Lord says this, “My sheep hear my voice.” I know them and they follow me. You know his voice. If you’ll pay attention, you’ll hear it. He says, “I’m going to lead you to still waters. I’m not going to drive you. I’m not going to force you. I’m not going to push you. But you’re going to hear my voice, you’re going to recognize it, and you’ll follow, and it will lead you to good green pastures, and you’re going to settle down and rest. You’re going to rest at some still waters and you’re going to be able to drink and be very satisfied.”
Then it says, he brings me back. What’s interesting about that, because some translations say, “he brings me back from the wrong path to the right path.” Sheep by their very nature go off. We don’t know where we’re going. So if we’re not paying attention, we’re going over here. You may have a great time with God right now, and in a half hour when you leave here, who knows. Who knows where you’re going to be. That’s why he brings me back. That’s who he is, he restores my soul. That means he brings me back. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. There’s a right path for you in life. If you will listen and pay attention to him, you will get on that right path and you will stay on it. But if you don’t listen to him and you’re not paying attention, let me tell you something: You’re distracted, you’re off, you’re out. Who knows where you are.
Here’s the thing. We overestimate our control of life. We actually think that we know what we are doing, where we are going. Think of the smartest person you know. Jeri and I knew this guy, George, once, who didn’t even want to go to college but he was, I think, the smartest person I’d ever met. He had a photogenic mind. He would read something 25 years ago and he would remember it. This guy knew something about everything. Medicine, dentistry, printing presses, architecture, engineering, building bridges, theology, philosophy, literature, professors, faculty. It didn’t matter what field it was, I’d mention something, he could tell the intricacies of that subject. All about botany. One guy in our church works in a printing press company. One time I was with George, he was telling me all the printing process. I’m thinking, This guy can’t know all this. So I called my friend, he said it’s true, it’s true, he knows.
So I know, some of you are very smart here, but I want you to understand something. You’re a sheep and you’re dumb. That’s the key. In light of the large scale of life out there, you don’t know. You cannot lead your own life without God. You can try. You may think you’re competent; you’re not. You may think you’re not needy, that you can do it—you can’t. None of us can. You may think you’re independent; you are dependent.
John O’Donohue is a Celtic poet. Not alive right now, but he wrote this and Jeri and I never forgot it, and we have found it to be true over the years. It is this: “Because we are so engaged with the world, we can forget how fragile life can be and how vulnerable we always are. It only takes a few seconds for a life to change irreversibly.” Seconds. I’ve got a lump, I’ve got a pain in my left leg, a car hits you from behind, etc. That’s why people love this psalm and read it on our deathbeds. Because it’s a confession of vulnerability and dependence. We are not in control. That’s why if you get powerful and rich and successful according to the world’s standards, it actually perpetuates an illusion that you’re in control. That’s the problem with being famous—you think you’re something and you’re not. You are dependent, you are needy, and without God you are incompetent. So I’ve got to pay attention to hear his voice because apart from him I have no idea where to go, I’m lost.
One of the turning points in my Christian life happened in 2003. It’s when Jeri and I took this four-month contemplative sabbatical. For four months we went and visited monasteries to learn from monks about paying attention in silence. We did Rhythms of Silence and Solitude in Daily Office. It’s really impacted our church over the years. But what happened in particular to my spirituality was I’d always known it was important to pay attention, but it was always a struggle. I am such an ADHD, distractable guy. My mind is always going. But in that four-month period, I actually had a deep experience of paying attention and I could feel myself changing and I came back different. My body felt different; my mind felt different; my spirituality felt different. Pretty much since then, I’ve kept it up. Actually, every morning, 99 percent of the time, I will take my phone out and I will put it on 20 minutes and I will pay attention for 20 minutes. I’ll have silent centering prayer for 20 minutes. I’ll read Scripture before or after maybe, but I’m going to have that 20 minutes. And that has changed my life and I can’t imagine living without it at this point.
Here’s what I began to realize, I wasn’t stopping to pay attention to God so he would speak to me, but I found out God had a lot to say. And I found out that a lot of things I was asking for were not even important. They weren’t even good for me. I began to open my heart and say, “God, what do you want?” I would say things like, “Where would you like to go, what do you think, Lord, Shepherd?” That’s a whole different way of praying. My view of listening to God was so narrow. And it turned out I realized I was calmer and less anxious. I could feel a difference in my body. I became sensitive to when I was in a conversation. Have you ever been in a conversation that’s a disturbing conversation? And now I was aware immediately that I was in a disturbing conversation, and then I would actually stop and I would go home and be present, pay attention to God, say, “God, what was happening, how were you coming to me in that disturbing conversation?” I began to slow down to hear things and be sensitive to things happening in my own body. I was less reactive. I actually began to enjoy life a lot more and be present to things. My relationships actually got better because I was more present to people. It was a greater awareness of God across the line. Have I arrived? No, I’m still on my journey. I’m still a little bit ADHD crazy, but you should have known me before.
Trust him in darkness
So first I want to pay attention because I want to hear his voice; his voice is taking me somewhere. But not only that, I want to pay attention because I want to trust him in darkness. Now, this verse says, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley” or “The valley of the shadow of death,” the darkest valley. That’s why this is said on deathbeds a lot. Because you only go through that dark valley once. To be able to say, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I’ve got nothing I can hold on to right now. I will fear no evil, for you are with me. Your rod and your staff comfort me.”
Life is full of valleys, setbacks, disappointments, tragedies. Some of you are in a valley. You’re in deep. God loves you so much, he’s going to lead you through a valley. Because on the other side of that valley is a resurrection. There are pastures and wells to drink from and still waters that can only be gotten to once you walk through that valley. “Even though I walk through the deepest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” That’s all you need.
But the reason this is so challenging is sheep don’t have any defenses. Remember, cats have claws, dogs have teeth and speed, deer can run, bears can attack, and horses can kick. Sheep, nothing. So here you are so many times in life. This is why so many people quit Jesus at this moment. Because they say, “I don’t think God knows what he is doing. He is wrecking my life. I quit. I’m out of here. I’m done with God. I’m going to run my own life from now on. I’ll do a better job than him.” You have no idea where you’re going. Stay with him, keep paying attention to him. You will come through this valley and you will hit Easter. You will find life that can be found no other way except by going through that valley.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn was in the former Soviet Union. He was a devout Communist and a famous literary figure in the 1930–40s in Russia. But in 1945 he made a negative comment about the leader of Russia, Joseph Stalin, who was a total megalomaniac. He made one negative comment about Stalin and as a result, he got sentenced to eight years in a Soviet labor camp. He wrote about the horrors—it was called the Gulag Soviet labor camp—in what’s considered the best nonfiction book of the 20th century, called Gulag Archipelago, on the prison labor camps around the Soviet Union. But he writes about how when he was a young man he was very judgmental toward other people, and he was actually without mercy. He said, “I was not forgiving of people. I was harsh.” He goes on to say, “I was cruel actually toward others because I felt I was infallible. But as I lay there on rotting prison straw, my heart got stirred.” He was led to faith in that gulag, and he saw horrible, horrible things. He was led to faith in Christ by the witness of a Jewish believer, a man who was later beaten to death by prison guards. But while he was suffering unjustly, thinking he was never going to ever get out of this prison, he found grace. Or better, grace found him. Here is what he wrote: “This is why I turn to the years of my imprisonment and I say sometimes to the astonishment of those around me, ‘Bless you, prison.’ I nourished my soul there and I say without hesitation, ‘Bless you, prison, for having been in my life.’”
In that valley, Solzhenitsyn found life. There are things that come to us in valleys of darkest shadow that can come no other way, of insights and revelations. And God says, I have a rod. Shepherds have a rod and they have a staff. The rod was used to beat off wild animals. So you don’t even know what God is saving you from. You didn’t get that job, you have no idea. So he has the rod for the wild animals and beasts. He’s also got the gentle shepherd’s staff because when you’re in valleys, we make a lot of wrong moves. You say a lot of stupid things. You do stupid things. The lovely thing is the staff pulls you in. You’re paying attention, but you’re missing it sometimes. “Your rod and your staff, they comfort me, Lord, to know that you’re in charge of this expedition, not me. Because I’m trying to pay attention, I’m probably going to mess up, but that’s okay—you’re pulling me in. And that’s how much you love me.”
Receive his love
In the third movement, he switches metaphors to a banquet table and focuses on receiving his love. He says, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows.”
I love the phrase, “in the presence of my enemies.” How many of you have enemies? People that don’t like you, people that hate you, people that will never forgive you for things you’ve done, things you’ve said, they’ve judged you, and their opinion of you will be negative until the day you die. Some of you have done things that are unthinkable. Some of you have done things that are unmentionable. David did some horrific things. But somehow David was able to pay attention and receive the love of God and sit. “You will prepare a banquet table in the presence of my enemies.” David was able to block all of the voices out that said, “You don’t deserve this, you bum.” He’s able to block it out and receive the love of God for himself.
Most of us have a lot of negative messages in our head that over and over again bombard us that we’re not worthy, we can’t do this. Wrong messages, things like, “You don’t matter. You don’t have a table set for you by God. You’re stupid and unimportant. You’re not perfect enough. You’re wrong a lot. You’re not to be trusted. You’ll never amount to anything. You’re a loser.” These voices pummel us. We read the Bible and it goes over our heads. But God says, “It’s good you exist. I’ve prepared a table before you. You’re lovable. You’re good enough. You’re a joy. You have nothing left to prove. Your needs are a delight. You’re allowed to make mistakes. You matter.”
One theologian said the best definition for grace is “you matter.” You matter so much that God prepares a table before you, in the presence of your enemies. There is a restaurant called Per Se, in Manhattan. It’s one of the most expense Manhattan restaurants. It costs $851 a person to get the basic meal. Now, Jeri and I had a friend that we discipled in our early 20s that became rich. When he came to New York one day he took Jeri and me to that restaurant. It was hard to receive it, thousands of dollars for a meal. It was overwhelmed just sitting there. And imagine you’re sitting at a banquet and you’re paying attention to receive his love.
David goes on, “You anoint my head with oil.” In ancient times, they would anoint your head with perfume, or cologne if you’re a male. It’s like being in a spa. God, himself, is anointing you with oil. He loves you that much and then it says, “My cup overflows.” God is the waiter. He’s the host and the waiter. He’s going to pour it, and the cup is overflowing with love and goodness. Most of us can’t take it. We’re so used to the negative messages we can’t receive that kind of love. “God, you know who I am? A bum. My mama told me, I’m a bum.” And we carry these messages. But David is paying attention, not just to hear his voice. David is paying attention and he is receiving love. He is letting it wash over him. He’s not even caring what other people say about him. He’s not thinking about it, and it’s just coming into him.
When you’re a guest in the Mideast you’re protected, you’re under that protection. God says, “You’re mine.” This is an extraordinary treatment. God says, “I want you to exercise the muscle of paying attention so you can sit at that table that I have prepared for you, and I can fill you and I can anoint you with oil. And your cup might just overflow with my love and blessing.” Most of us, we would rather be distracted. We feel more comfortable being in the gutter and being called a loser. But God says, “I want you to pay attention, to learn that’s not who you are anymore, you’re my sheep and you’re mine.”
Pay attention to beauty
At the end and he invites us to a fourth movement, which is pay attention to beauty: “Surely goodness”—or it can be translated “beauty”—“and love will follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Now, shepherds would send an assistant in the back of the flock, and they would be the rear guard against thieves and animals. So God says, “I’ve got your back too. You’re following me, you don’t know what’s out there. So I want you to know that I’m your rear guard and I’m following you, and what’s following you is beauty and love.”
I come from an Italian American family. If you’ve seen the movies, we’re a very superstitious lot—some would say neurotic and paranoid, and it’s true. I was taught growing up about the evil eye. I know other cultures have the evil eye today. So instead of it being goodness and beauty and love will follow you all the days of your life, my family’s went something like this. Ugliness and curses will follow you all the days of your life because you deserve it. If you’re having a good time, don’t enjoy it too long because it’s going to be over real quick. My family didn’t teach me very much about paying attention to beauty. It was work. Go to work, go to work, go to work and produce. That was it. Yet, a very core practice of spirituality is to pay attention to beauty. That’s why artists are so important to us.
Etty Hillesum was a Dutch Jewish thinker from Holland who died at the age of 29 at Auschwitz, a Nazi concentration camp. If any place was hell on earth and deepest darkness, it was Auschwitz. While she was there, in the few months that she lived there before she died, she kept a diary. Somehow the diary survived. She wrote this in her diary. I want to tell you a little excerpt that is so amazing, because if you will pay attention, you too will see beauty in the most unexpected places. Here is what she wrote: “Sometimes when I stand at some corner of the camp, my feet planted on your earth …”—talking to God—“… my eyes raised toward your heaven, tears sometimes running down my face, tears of deep emotion and gratitude, and I want to be there right in the thick of what people call horror and still be able to say life is beautiful. And now I lie here in a corner, dizzy and feverish and unable to do a thing. But I am also with jasmine …”—Jasmine is a plant with a lovely fragrance used for perfume and tea—“… and that piece of sky beyond my window, and all of life becomes one long stroll. Such a marvelous feeling.”
Now, I don’t know what you’re in today—in your darkest valley—but you will be in darkest valleys. But I can promise you this, that if you’ll pay attention to God, if you’ll train that muscle, you’ll begin to see things you never saw before. A little jasmine, a little bit of sky. Because there is beauty all around you. Sunrises and sunsets, moons and stars, clouds and a smile and a kind word, the beauty of a leaf and a tree, snow, and a taste and a visual of food. Most of my life, especially before I began to pay attention, I wasn’t seeing a lot of beauty. I’ll be honest, I was too busy producing. Like most of you, I was distracted too much. But I am learning and I have learned to really treasure museums, art, music, food, and people. I’ve found that things, truths, and beauty come in the darkest valleys and difficult times like nowhere else. But that discipline of paying attention is a muscle that as you exercise it, things happen.
Maybe you’ve heard the phrase that most of us have monkey minds. That is, our minds are like monkeys flying around. We’re all over the place, distracted. So this guy, Father Keating, a Trappist monk, talks about how he was teaching some folks how to pay attention in centering prayer, silent meditation. This woman said, “I tried it. It doesn’t work for me. I had 10,000 thoughts in five minutes.” Father Keating simply said, “Oh, that’s great, that’s 10,000 opportunities to return to Jesus.” The point is there is no failure in this. The fact that you showed up is the success. You know what you’re saying? “I need you.” It’s an act of humility and dependency. If you don’t pray, you don’t have devotions, you don’t have time, you’re too distracted, do you know what you’re saying? “I’m doing just fine. I can get through life without God. If I need him, I’ll call him. I’m a sheep. I can figure this thing out.” That’s the power of stopping for devotions.
So we’re going to start with once a day right now. I’m going to ask you to take five minutes to pay attention. The first two minutes of these five minutes, I’m going to ask you to focus on your breathing. It is a very Eastern Orthodox discipline—Eastern churches use this a lot, in Syria and Iraq. Right now just breathe in through your nose deeply, then breathe out. Begin to become aware of your breath. Become aware of your body—the tensions you’re feeling, your stomach, your neck. What you’re feeling, anxieties, peacefulness. First minute or two, becoming aware that you’re in the presence of God but aware of your own breath. It’s a great way to just center down.
Then you say, “Okay, I’m paying attention to God here.” Then what I do is I say “Jesus” or “Abba, Jesus.” So my mind wanders, and depending on what I’m doing—I’ll light a candle, or I may read a song beforehand. I’m going to ask you to either, if your mind is really racing, maybe just start by meditating on Psalm 23, make a few notes, or you may just want to start with the silence and then after you’re finished, then meditate on Psalm 23. Whatever works for you. Then you’re going to be silent, and then your mind is going to go: “Oh, I’ve got to email William. Oh, he’s mad at me. That’s right, he’s going to judge me if I don’t email him within the next two days. Oh yeah, Jesus. Forget William—Jesus—we’re back.” And that’s it.
I spend my five minutes. I’ve got my timers on, and I’m all set. Do it every day. So probably take 10 minutes or so, depending on how much time you’ve got. You want to read the Scripture. Do it for seven days and see the impact on the rest of your day. Now, really, my goal and prayer is that you’re doing this two to three times a day, not just once. But start with once and get that settled.
God’s invitation for us right now is to pay attention to hear his voice, to pay attention to trust him in the valley, to see his beauty, to receive his love.