12/19/2012 12:19 pm ET Updated Feb 18, 2013

Paying Attention

Preached on Dec. 16 for University Worship at Cannon Chapel, Emory University.

Have you ever gotten to the end of a semester and realized that there was a theme running through your semester? You know, you look back and realize, wow, there was a pattern or a constant. It showed up in your classes, at worship, in co-curricular activities, in choir rehearsals, even on the intramural field. For some of us it was a theme we prescribed; we did it with some intention. For others, it came about without our knowledge. Well, it happened to me this semester, I noticed a theme.

You see, before the semester even started, I offered training to our RAs and orientation leaders at Oxford, and in that training we talked about spiritual practices. I gave them a list of 25 practices, asked them to take a few minutes to study the list, and then had them go around the room and name the practice that connected with them in that moment at the start of a new semester and experience.

Only one person out of the two groups -- a Resident Assistant (RA) -- chose the practice of attention, a practice that enhances awareness and helps to counter distraction or stress. She went on to talk about how she hoped this year, especially as an RA, that she would pay attention to others. Not just to fix their needs, but she wanted to notice people and understand them in hopes that the practice would lead to another practice -- the practice of welcome (making space for others). She hoped to be in tune with other people by truly being aware of herself and her surroundings. And then, she hoped others -- often, the Other -- would feel at home.

She taught me something that day, more than I could ever teach her. And it stuck with me through the semester -- it became my theme. I found myself spending more and more time with this practice of attention -- of paying attention. One of the places I found some further understanding about this practice was in Barbara Brown Taylor's book, "An Altar in the World." She has a chapter on "The Practice of Paying Attention" and says that

The practice of paying attention really does take time. Most of us move so quickly that our surroundings become no more than the blurred scenery we fly past on our way to somewhere else. We pay attention to the speedometer, the wristwatch, the cell phone, the list of things to do, all of which feed our illusion that life is manageable.

Yeah, that sounds like me. What about you?

When I took a deeper look at the Scripture readings for today, I noticed a theme running through them. It was more than just the Advent theme of waiting. Most of today's readings for this third Sunday of Advent, whether in the reading itself or set against the backdrop of the context of the entire book, have a way of reminding us of the importance of paying attention.

In the Old Testament readings two prophets, Zephaniah and Isaiah, remind the people that the Lord has taken away the judgment against them and turned away their enemies; that God is surely their salvation and that, with joy, they shall draw water from the wells of salvation. Even if you are living in the midst of squalor and turmoil, the prophets are telling them a truth. God lives with you; God brings wholeness. Even if you're waiting for something you can't stand waiting for, the God of wholeness waits with you.

We know, don't we, that Advent is all about waiting. And waiting has to be one of the most difficult practices out there for our culture -- for us. How do we wait for the birth of Christ when the stores, radio stations, sometimes even churches won't wait? Better yet, how do we wait for his coming again? What does it look like to live in between the advents? It's not easy; one thing it requires of us is intentional patience.

Take for instance what I read recently about University of Virginia professor, Matthew Crawford who, in a discussion on work and dignity, relayed an account of his father's struggle with Parkinson's disease. He says, once when we got into a car together, my father struggled long and hard to get his seatbelt fastened. Crawford, says, I thought about doing it for him, but refrained. When he finally got it fastened, my father, exhausted from the process, looked at me and said, "Thank you for not doing it." His independence and dignity had been maintained.

Waiting requires intentional patience and that is all wrapped up in practicing attention. Paying attention to truths, the sacred, where the sacred intersects with our very human day-to-day lives.

Most of you know that Ami and I just had a baby. We took 12 weeks of birth classes in Athens this fall in preparation for having this child. We read several books about labor and delivery as we waited for little Sam to get here. We both thought Ami would go into labor early, so in late October we packed the car with pillows and a quilt, our suitcase for the hospital stay, and snacks for the potentially long process of labor. We lined up pet sitters, and hid our key in that most sacred of places outside so that only those who had been assigned duties in our house could find it. And November came and we waited. Early November -- waiting. Our due date finally arrived -- surely, this it! We waited. Then, what we did not think would happen, happened. Our two families arrived for Thanksgiving, as planned (a week after the due date), but there was still no baby. So we gave thanks anyway, and we waited. Almost two weeks past his due date, Sam arrived.

This is what I call forced intentional patience. But we had to wait, and in the midst of that waiting, lots of paying attention. We had to pay attention to Ami's body, to preparing for what was ahead, to taking care of the logistics. And even though Sam didn't follow my schedule, he arrived nonetheless.

It doesn't always happen as joyfully, though, does it? Only a few days ago I came home from a hospital visit where I visited a woman waiting on a diagnosis. She was afraid; so was her family. It would probably be cancer. She had to wait 24 hours to get the news. She thought of what life would be like without cancer -- a life she had known up to this point but maybe hadn't paid as much attention to as she was now during the waiting. She thought about how she would come back to work as normal. She would cherish her grandchildren. Maybe she would quit smoking. My phone rang the next day, about 24 hours after the biopsy. It was her supervisor. It's cancer. She's got two to three months.

She was waiting for news. Waiting and paying attention to the joys and sorrows in her life.

Collectively, as a nation, we know about waiting too. With the most recent events in Newtown, Conn., we've been waiting. We've been waiting to find out exactly what happened. We've been waiting to know who did it, to know who died, to know why. And the prophets tell us that even when we can't stand waiting for what we're waiting for, God waits with us. And all we can say is what we'll pray in a few moments, "Come, Lord Jesus."

Luke tells us that as the people were waiting they were filled with expectation. John, are you the Messiah? Surely it's you. It's time. We're here. This is the moment. We've been waiting.

No! It's as if John says to them, wake up and pay attention. I am not the one you're waiting for. I can baptize you with water. I can initiate you into this way of life and mark you as one of God's own. But the one you're waiting for will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and that's fire. And this makes all the difference, because the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit brings about transformation. He brings to our world the power of transformation. And Luke says that John proclaimed this good news to the people who were waiting for it. Come, Lord Jesus.

Zephaniah, Isaiah, John the Baptist, Luke -- they all wanted the people to wake up and pay attention. In the midst of their waiting, they needed them to know that God waits with them. In joy, in sorrow, in disaster, in triumph, we live with a God who waits with us -- who begs us to wake up and pay attention to how God moves in our very human day-to-day lives. Come, Lord Jesus.

Some of you know that one of my favorite musical groups is Mumford and Sons. I have no idea if they are as religious or spiritual as their lyrics seem to be. I have no idea if they write their songs with Jesus in mind. Maybe. Maybe not. I know that the group's lead singer, Marcus Mumford, is the son of two evangelical church pastors in England, so there's some influence there.

One of the songs on their newly released album, Babel, is called "I Will Wait." One day while trying to find music videos of Mumford and Sons on the Internet, I ran across one with a list of comments from various internet searchers just like me. One, from an anonymous woman describing a particularly difficult season in her life as "soul wrenching," talked about how this song, "I Will Wait" put a lump in her throat and filled her still-sleepy eyes with hot tears. She recalled how the spiritual writer Frederick Buechner once said that we should pay careful attention to the things that bring about such reactions, because they are signs that the holy is drawing nigh.

The song did the same for me the first time I heard it. Like her, it has become a prayer offering a sense of clarity about waiting; offering some meaning behind the importance of paying attention. So, when I heard it and read her words, I too thought that the holy must be drawing nigh.

In the chorus the group reminds us over and over again that we wait. They sing, "I will wait, I will wait for you." This is scattered throughout the song. But there are two moments in song that are especially poignant - I guess it's sort of like a bridge offered early on and then repeated toward the end. They sing,

"And I'll kneel down
Wait for now
And I'll kneel down
Know my ground."

I'll kneel down and know my ground. Could they be reminding us to pay attention?

Barbara Brown Taylor says that none of these things -- paying attention to the speedometer or the wristwatch, the cell phone or the list of things to do -- none of these things meet the first criteria for paying attention or reverence, which is to remind us that we are not gods.

And in each of the scripture readings for today the writer reminds the people of the One to whom they belong; the One who has the power to transform their lives even in the midst of their waiting; the One who calls them to pay attention. Come, Lord Jesus.

And there at the beginning of my semester, like Isaiah and Zephaniah and even old John the Baptist, there stood this young, vulnerable Resident Assistant waiting to be trained by me. And she said, "I want to pay attention to them, to understand them, so that they might feel at home." Whew! Come, Lord Jesus.

And all I know to do or to offer to all of you is to come to this table; to kneel down and know your ground so that you and others might feel at home.