I’m in my 17th privileged year of serving the church I was called to right out of seminary.
In the early years, for my sake and that of the church, I suppose, our leadership hired a “church planting coach” for me. His job title summed up the position well. My coach, Jimmy, was a wise, enthusiastic, experienced pastor. And happy. Quite.
Before our regular phone check-ins, I was required to do pre-call assignments. I was to send an email with the answer to five questions (at least so I think!) each week as a prerequisite for our conversation. No answers, no phone call.
The questions were diagnostic and aimed to discern something like “what’s going well, poorly, or confusingly?” They had a double benefit of causing self-reflection for me, and granting him raw material from my life as a young pastor at a church plant to guide and inform our mentoring conversations.
One of those questions was, “What are you celebrating in Jesus this week?”
I did not like that question.
Because I don’t talk that way. Or think that way.
So it seemed awkward to me.
But nonetheless I would answer it. Or try to. And suppose I got better at it in time, but not before hashing it out more thoroughly with Jimmy, “What do you mean, “celebrating in Jesus?”
A Most Useful Self-Query
Turns out, it was probably the most useful self-query he could have imposed on me. Because whether intentional or not, it wound up being an extraordinarily useful detective tool for a pastor, and I would say, for all followers of Jesus. It’s a question that requires you to notice, reflect, and pay attention to things going on around you which might have gone unrecognized.
And the question assumes Jesus’ activity.
It assumes there is never NOT an answer to that question. Because the detective of God’s grace will always find our Lord’s fingerprints, even in scenes of suffering and aggravation. And like a gardner examining the buds of her flowering plants, it’s a question that counts on living things to grow and expects that the “God who gives the growth” is always up to something in his people and on his planet.
Jayber Crow would probably have asked me, “What good things did you refuse to let go by unnoticed this week?”
And Jimmy would have approved of that way of putting it too....he just wanted to make sure the animating involvement of Jesus didn’t get erased from my attention. It’s a critical job requirement for a pastor, noticing the activity of Jesus in the lives of those whose ruin he opposes.
He was of course educating me.
Matthew Crawford notes, “The core of education is this: developing the capacity to concentrate. The fruits of this capacity we call civilization.” Jimmy was schooling me in concentrating my attention in a direction that Twitter rarely will.
But giving attention isn’t easy, of course. You have to want to do it. To know to do it. To imagine it might matter substantially to set about detecting things.
Tim Wu recently wrote a book called The Attention Merchants. It’s a history of advertising and its influences, and an aptly named vocation that he describes. Because, we are all now “products” (“If you are not the consumer, you are the product”) as we consume large amounts of free content, services, and apps online, for someone or another interested in paying for our attention. Advertisers are handsomely rewarded to cleverly deliver a captive audience, like us, to those who have something to sell.
Adoration Economy and Lending Our Attention
The recognition is that we are immersed in what Nathan Schneider called an “adoration economy” in which we lend power to all manner of ideas, companies, politicians, and products by how much attention we pay them.
“The novelist Iris Murdoch devoted the last of her philosophical treatises to the moral import of how we learn and choose to pay attention. ‘The idea of attention or contemplation, of looking carefully at something and holding it before the mind, may be conveyed early on in childhood,’ she wrote. She imagined a parent pointing certain things out (and not others) to a child:
‘Look, listen, isn’t that pretty, isn’t that nice?’
Also, ‘Don’t touch!’” She went on, “This is moral training as well as preparation for a pleasurable life.’”
Such noticing of the lovely, relieving, courage-producing, tendernesses that come into our lives is also good training for people who trust a God who “is always at work.”
We’ll likely be emaciated in our confidence and expectation in our God, if we donate our attention merely to soccer, Instagram, Netflix, video games, balance sheets, picture-worthy lawns and Black-Friday sales. We may just forget what story we are in and therefore lose a sense of what we are here to do and be.
So as we move toward Thanksgiving where we will cease other activities, presumably to inventory God’s grace for giving thanks perhaps it’d be beneficial and even heartening to pause for a moment (or for many of them!) and notice, has God been up to anything in my life of late? Or around me? Or is he inviting me to pay closer attention? Or to direct mine differently?
Though much of late has been too true to be good, has any benefit derived from your aggravating affliction? Have you been enabled to conclude with John Newton “that everything he sends is needful and nothing he withholds can be needful?”
Where may Christ have tenderly offered, what Ralph Davis called, “the cushions of compassion amid the harshest of circumstances?
Like a hyper-active smoke detector, we can chirp incessantly and as our native tongue about what we have that we don’t want or want that we don’t have, but Jimmy was coaching me, I now realize, just as the Apostle Paul had in that splendid thank-you letter we call Philippians. Namely that “rejoicing in the Lord” is actually a safeguard for us. Because, it’s true, as CS Lewis insisted, “he who has God and everything else has no more than he who has God only.”
The old hymn writer put it a little more simply, but is not off base:
“Count your blessings, name them one by one,
Count your blessings, see what God has done,
Count your blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.”
Even if what you notice is small, by learning to celebrate, even the tiniest and most apparently commonplace appearances of Christ in your life, you may come to be strangely settled, just like the Psalmist who boasted, almost unintelligibly to modern ears, by that charming sentiment our hankering hearts wish to understand, “You are my Lord, apart from you, I have no good thing.”
Contact Eric Youngblood, pastor of Rock Creek Fellowship on Lookout Mountain, at email@example.com