I share this story - imagined but true to life - because if we are to be truly changed to be more loving, more Christ-like, it’s in the reality of our ordinary lives that we must learn to pay attention. As I think about what it means to follow Jesus in our times, I’m aware of a couple of things that seem as crucial for us as they have been for believers throughout history.
The first is that God can only meet us in a place of reality, or truth. That is, God doesn't meet me in a place of pretence, or in my blind spots, or when I am trying to keep up appearances. God meets me right in the nitty gritty of what is revealed to be true about me. The second crucial thing is that, in order for me to be met by God in that reality, I have to wake up to that same truth. It’s not enough for God to know what is true about me, I also have to come to some measure of realisation of where I am and that God wants to meet me there.
This waking up process could also be called learning to pay attention, or becoming aware. And let’s be honest, there is a fair bit of flotsam that gets in the way of us seeing things for what they are. First and foremost, we more often prefer to distract ourselves from reality than face it, or feel it. Distraction - in the form of noise and busyness - makes it hard for us to pay attention to the things that matter most. (If you want to think more about our need to recover from living distractedly, you could start by reading The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, by J.M. Comer.)
Thankfully and by contrast, there are also things that can help us to pay attention; to become aware of what is going on in us and of how God might be present to us there. Other people might say it differently, but I think we can summarise these attention-assistants into two categories: signals and questions.
Signals include all the feedback from our bodies. That is, all the messages from our five physical senses, as well as those physical feelings that tell us about our emotional state. In the personal story I recounted, you may have noticed that I heard the tone of my own voice, I saw the look on my husband’s face, I felt an inner sense of constriction. Then later, I felt the fresh air as I took some deep breaths, I felt myself stumble, I saw the almond buds and imagined the smell of spring.
Questions are those things we might ask ourselves when we receive a signal from our bodies. The best kind of questions in this context - ones that help us reflect in ways that grow our sense of awareness - could be called wondering questions. In my story you may have noticed that I wondered about spring arriving on the back of storms. I wondered about God’s intention to bring about the goodness of new growth in this season. I wondered at the ‘fragrance’ that might arise in my own life with others.
Through the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit, the whole process of receiving signals, reflecting on questions and coming to awareness enabled me to return home and make things right with my husband. While it might seem a small thing, it is precisely in these small and ordinary moments that we learn what it looks like to follow Jesus in ways that bring us to maturity. And if this stormy season in world history teaches us anything, it is surely that we have a great need for people who are coming to emotional and spiritual maturity in Jesus. May you and I be those people!