Jon Kabat-Zinn. Photo by Mari Smith. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.
Some weeks, when you’re writing sermons, you have to do a little extra research. Usually, this involves a trip to library to find a particular biblical commentary or an article in a scholarly journal, but this week, my “extra research” involved digging around in old boxes of lost junk and VHS tapes in order to find a John Travolta movie. The movie I was looking for is from 1996. It’s called Michael and it stars Travolta as an angel sent from heaven to help two people find true love.
All in all, John Travolta plays a rather un-angelic angel. He smokes cigarettes, curses like a sailor, and starts fights in bars. He has wings, but no halo. When someone asks him why he doesn’t fit the stereotypical angelic image, he simply responds, “I’m not that kind of angel.” However, in spite of his rough appearance, Travolta’s Michael is the real deal. He offers these occasional moments of insight and wisdom that just blow your mind.
One such moment comes when Michael confronts another character and indicates that he is aware that she has ulterior motives regarding a certain situation. Stunned and thinking that he must have the ability to read minds, she asks him, “How could you possibly know that?” His brilliant response: “I pay attention.”
Paying attention is almost always good advice, whether you’re an angel on a mission, a hunter in a tree stand, or driving a car. It also happens to be, in my opinion, essential to a healthy spiritual life. In fact, I don’t think it would be wrong at all to say that spirituality itself is mainly an exercise in paying attention.
There are those who would disagree with me on this. They might say that spirituality is about “getting God into your life”. While I can respect that metaphor, I don’t really see God as a person who walks around, into, and out of things. For me, God is that ultimate reality in which we all “live, and move, and have our being” (as the apostle Paul says in the book of Acts). That’s why I think spirituality is all about paying attention to the God who is already here: around you and within you, revealed in the stuff of everyday life.
I can see hints that Jesus himself perhaps thought of God in this way. Whenever people asked him to describe his ideas about God or God’s vision for the destiny of the world, Jesus used metaphors from everyday life: a woman baking bread, a farmer sowing seed, crops growing, birds nesting, and parents loving their kids. For Jesus, God was not an abstract philosophical concept, but an intimate and loving presence that knows us better than we know ourselves and “is closer to us than our own hearts” (Augustine). In order to reflect this intimacy, Jesus most often referred to God as “Abba”, a Hebrew word that technically means “Father” but could more accurately be translated as “Daddy”. Even today, little Israeli kids call their dads “Abba”. Jesus’ preference for this term was meant to make a point: he saw God as his Father, but not in a specifically male or authoritative sense. For Jesus, God as Father is “Abba”, “Daddy”: the intimate and affectionate presence of unconditional love and care in the universe. And it is through the regular, everyday stuff of the universe that this presence is made known to us. Therefore, according to Jesus, it’s important to pay attention to the little details and patterns of life.
If we know where to look, we can see Jesus leading by example in this regard all through the gospels. We read about the times when he stepped away from the crowds in order to pray or meditate. We can hear it in the sermon on the mount and in his many parables. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus’ capacity for paying attention fuels his insight into human nature and empowers his criticism of the pious powers that be. As usual, this passage opens with Jesus confronting educated religious leaders. Most commentaries and sermons on this passage focus on Jesus as the social critic who exposes hypocrisy among the religious elite. What I want to focus on today is the spiritual stance that allowed Jesus to become such an erudite critic of society.
The phrase that struck me as I was preparing for this sermon comes in verse 41: “[Jesus] sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury.” He sat down and watched. You’d be amazed at how much you can learn by just sitting and watching. In this world of high speed downloads from the information superhighway, most people are slowly losing their patience for the learning process. We think education is just a matter of filling a person’s brain with pieces of data as quickly and efficiently as possible, but there’s something important that comes in the way we acquire and assimilate information.
When the famous scientist Jane Goodall was a little girl (about four years old), she wanted to know where chicken eggs came from, so she made her way into a chicken coop, sat down, and watched patiently for several hours on end. Eventually, she got to see a chicken laying an egg. As an adult, she made use of that same patience in the hills of Gombe, Tanzania, where she revolutionized the study of chimpanzees in the wild. Her study method was the same as the one she used in the chicken coop as a kid: sit down and watch.
This time, it took her six months to get close enough for contact and real learning. Most of the established scientists at that time criticized Goodall’s amateurish methods. She named the chimps, rather than number them. She preferred to pay attention to her test subjects in their natural environment, rather than take them back to a laboratory and analyze them. Her fellow scientists were certain that such unorthodox methods could never yield real scientific results. However, it was Goodall’s “sit down and watch” approach that changed the way we think about chimpanzees. She was the first to observe their behavior in groups, their use of tools, their expressions of emotion, and their practice of organized warfare. In time, she even won the acceptance of the chimpanzee tribe, simply by sitting and watching. They eventually came to her and began interacting with her up-close on a voluntary basis. Much of what we now know about these animals comes from Jane Goodall just sitting and watching, against the advice of other, more established scientists.
There was even a spiritual benefit to her sitting and watching discipline. The relationship she nurtured with the natural world in Gombe shaped her relationship with the Divine. Although she is not religious in any traditional sense, Jane Goodall has a very deep awareness of the same intimate presence that Jesus talked about. She says, “I don’t have any idea of who or what God is. But I do believe in some great spiritual power. I don’t know what to call it. I feel it particularly when I’m out in nature. It’s just something that’s bigger and stronger than what I am or what anybody is. I feel it. And it’s enough for me.”
Jane Goodall’s practice of sitting and watching revolutionized her own spirituality and the study of chimpanzees. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus’ similar practice of sitting and watching placed him exactly where he needed to be in order to gain a very specific insight into human nature and the subject of generosity. He was in the right spot at the right time to notice something that everyone else had overlooked. Loyal Jews were probably going in and out of the treasury all day, leaving their offerings for the priests and temple maintenance. Well-known and wealthy sponsors were recognized for their substantial contributions. On a purely practical level, their large donations mattered more than the many small donations that were often left anonymously. Among the smallest of these small donations would have been the two copper coins left by a woman who had lost everything and was, by ancient standards, of little importance to anyone. Jesus, sitting and watching, understood the significance of her gift. When viewed in terms of actual numbers, her donation was trivial. But when viewed in terms of percentages, it was huge. Two pennies to her was a larger percentage of her income than two thousand dollars would have been to the super rich philanthropists whose contributions kept the temple running. But Jesus, sitting and watching, was the only one in a position to notice and realize the significance of this woman’s gift. Jesus paid attention. He saw what no one else would see, therefore he knew what no one else could know. After sitting and watching, he walked away with more insight about the nature of generosity than any of the hypocritical scribes and Torah scholars who worked there every day. Sitting, watching, and paying attention provided Jesus with fuel for championing the cause of poor and outcast people. Sitting, watching, and paying attention exposed the corruption and hypocrisy that lurked just below the surface of Jesus’ polite and religious society. Sitting, watching, and paying attention allowed Jesus to see the hand of God at work in his life and the world at large. His vision of what this world could and should be was shaped by the simple practice of sitting, watching, and paying attention.
One of my favorite contemporary teachers of the art of paying attention is a man named Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. Dr. Kabat-Zinn is the person who first introduced the practice of eastern meditation to the practice of western medicine. His word for “paying attention” is mindfulness. He writes:
With our cell phones and wireless palm devices, we are now able to be so connected that we can be in touch with anyone and everyone at any time, do business anywhere. But have you noticed that, in the process, we run the risk of never being in touch with ourselves? In the overall seduction, we can easily forget that our primary connection to life is through our own interiority — the experiencing of our own body and all our senses, including the mind, which allow us to touch and be touched by the world, and to act appropriately in response to it. And for that, we need moments that are not filled with anything, in which we do not jump to get in one more phone call or send one more e-mail, or plan one more event, or add to our to-do list, even if we can. Moments of reflection, of mulling, of thinking things over, of thoughtfulness.
What Jon Kabat-Zinn is asking is this: is there any regular time in your day when you set aside moments for just sitting and watching or paying attention? Such moments can open you up to the kind of transformative insights that Jesus and Jane Goodall derived from their respective practices of mindfulness. It may feel like time wasted, but it is really essential for productivity and creativity. Even if it’s just a few minutes of quiet with your coffee before the kids get up, make use of it. Don’t try to fill that space with radio, TV, or reading. We get enough information coming into our heads all day. Let this be a time for being not doing. Although Jon Kabat-Zinn hesitates to use this term, I have no problem calling it spiritual. Through the regular practice of paying attention, we are able to nurture our conscious connection with ourselves, with the world around us, and with God.
Try it sometime. Just sit for a few minutes. Watch. Pay attention. The insights you gain from this act of mindful observing may be about the world (like they were for Jesus), they might be about God, or they might be about yourself. Given time and regular practice, you’ll begin to notice what other people pass by, just like Jesus did with the widow and her two coins. If you let them, these insights of stillness have the capacity to transform you into a wiser, more aware, more peaceful, and more compassionate person. In short, you become more Christ-like. As people of faith, especially as those who identify as Christian, we need more of this kind of inner transformation in our lives. We need to be more like Jesus.
Jon Kabat-Zinn sums up the importance of this task nicely in his own words:
It is the challenge of this era to stay sane in an increasingly insane world. How are we ever going to do it if we are continually caught up in the chatter of our own minds and the bewilderment of feeling lost or isolated or out of touch with what it all means and with who we really are when all the doing and accomplishing is sensed as being in some way empty, and we realize how short life is? Ultimately, it is only love that can give us insight into what is real and what is important. And so, a radical act of love makes sense—love for life and for the emergence of one’s truest self.