What if Christianity is a Way of Paying Attention?

What if Christianity is simply a way of paying attention?

After all the beliefs, after all the pomp and circumstance and the great cathedrals are stripped away, after all of the behaviors and the
admonitions to avoid certain behaviors are taken aside, what if Christianity is
primarily a way of paying attention?

I’ve been thinking a great deal about attention in these days : to what do we pay attention? How do we pay attention?

When his disciples asked how to pray, Jesus said: “when you pray don’t worry about the big words, don’t worry about praying in public.” Prayer for Jesus is a profoundly personal act. Jesus says, “shut the door go into your inner room…God will hear you in secret.” Jesus is worried less about what the world thinks of us and more about whether we know ourselves, whether we’re able to pay attention to the inner voice.

For Jesus, attention also always has to do with the neighbor. In Matthew’s Gospel there’s a dialogue toward the end of Jesus ministry. Jesus promises the disciples that they will see him. Jesus says: “whenever you visit those who are in prison, whenever you care for the sick, whenever you feed the hungry…that which you do to the least of these: my sisters, my brothers, my siblings, you do to me. Jesus invites us to pay attention to our neighbor.

And finally for Christianity there’s an invitation to pay attention to the presence of God.

We hear it from Saint Paul. (Which may surprise some of you, because I know that there are many people that want to let go of most everything Paul says). In the book of Acts there’s this scene Paul is at the Areopagus, a hill sometimes known as “Mars Hill” in Athens. Paul is speaking with the Athenians. I love this dialogue. It’s part of
why I chose to preach the sermon here in Tower Grove Park.

I love living in St. Louis and one of the things I love most about living here is Tower Grove Park, particularly the farmers market. In normal times, pre-pandemic, right here in this pavilion (I didn’t come here just because I need an excuse to come out of my house) this place reminds me of what Paul would have seen. When the farmers market is here behind me, when it’s bustling, you run into neighbors. There are all sorts of folks selling fruit and vegetables. There are the Amish folks with the big beards. There’s the African-American woman with the long gray dreadlocks selling flowers. And it’s tight and it’s busy and you meet neighbors, and neighbors kids, and neighbors dogs. I regularly run into folks from church here in Tower Grove Park.

Yoga and Christianity

The part of the market that makes me think of St. Paul is the yoga circle. Back there, beyond the trees, beyond where the stalls open. In normal times, during the farmers market, the largest gathering of St. Louisians doing yoga happens in a big circle. Sometimes a hundred plus people all are gather there in the grass for yoga. Christianity
and yoga have had a bit of a contentious relationship in the public square. It might surprise some folks that, as a Christian pastor, I have a great deal of affection for yoga. I think yoga is something just about everybody ought to be practicing. It’s not just because yoga has given me a new relationship with my back, though it has. Yoga forces me to slow down, to pay attention to my body, to pay attention to my breathing.

The argument that has happened between yoga and Christianity mostly has to do with whether it’s okay for Christians to practice yoga. St. Paul has a word in the midst of this. You see St. Paul in Athens, up there on the Areopagus, just beyond the busy marketplace where neighbors are selling fruits and vegetables and running into one another, there in the public square just beyond the marketplace. Paul has come up to the Areopagus, to the, hill where the philosophers debate. And Paul says something really surprising. He notices the Athenians, he has paid attention to the Athenians and he says, “I noticed that you are very religious, for I saw that you have a temple dedicated to an unknown God…that which the Athenians say is unknown we claim as known.”

And then Paul quotes a pagan poet and says God is the one “in whom we live, and move, and have our being. Paul doesn’t think that he needs to bring God to Athens. Paul doesn’t think that Christianity imports a new God into the life of a city. For Paul Christianity is a way of paying attention to God who is already there, already in the poetry of a society, already in the debates already there in the marketplace. Paul says that which you worship as unknown we claim to know. And Paul invites the Athenians to pay attention to the God in whom “we live and move and have our being.”

Times of Uncertainty

These are difficult days. We don’t know when the Farmers’ market will resume looking like the market I love. I don’t know when I’ll be able to gather in a group to do yoga or to break bread at church. In midst of it all we’re invited to pay attention to pay attention to ourselves:to use some of the time that we’re spending alone to get quiet. We are invited to know ourselves a bit more deeply.

Jesus says you will realize, if you pay attention, you are in me as I am in God. At the very heart of our selves is The One in whom “we live and move and have our being. I’m not gonna say that’s easy.

I’m grateful for the contemplative teacher Thomas Keating who said that every time you’re trying to be quiet, trying to center yourself in prayer and you find yourself distracted, take that as an invitation to return to God. It takes practice to treat distraction as an invitation to return to God. But in these days were invited to pay attention to ourselves.

In these days our neighbors need our attention. We need to pay attention to the hunger that is growing around us we need to pay attention to the rights of those who are persecuted. I’m grateful to be part of a Christian community that takes partnership with the vulnerable really seriously. Our partners at Cristosal in El Salvador are in the midst of fights to make sure that the governments of Central America do not ignore of the human rights of their citizens even in the midst of a pandemic.

Finally we are invited in these times to pay attention to God.

Jesus, when he was asked what is the greatest commandment, he said:

love the Lord your God with all your heart
with all your mind and all your strength and
love your neighbor as yourself.

You can’t love someone to whom you have not paid
attention. Love requires attention.

In these days if we are to follow that great commandment; if we are to love God, love
our neighbors, love ourselves: What if we thought of Christianity first as a way of paying attention?


Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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