Attention Where It’s Due

When I talk to my student leaders in our campus ministry, I tell them they have two jobs: show up and pay attention. It turns out I needed a little help with the latter.

Not that I’m unaware of my surroundings. If anything, I’m hypersensitive to the conditions of mood and weather and comfort. It’s important for me to know the various aspects of the climate in which I live.

Unfortunately, that commitment to knowing has made me at times hyper-focused on the politics that define so much of American life right now. And while conflict and disagreement don’t bother me–how else are we supposed to come to agreements if we can’t be honest?–the sheer idiocy of our time has cost me more than one gray hair. Even as we mark the death of John McCain, the conversation inevitably seems to turn away from the late senator and toward the president’s childish response to his passing. I’m continually baffled by the intellectual dishonesty and spiritual cowardice that enable our commander in chief to make it all about himself.

I get pretty worked up.

Luckily, my friend Boyd knows this about me.

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Boyd was also my son Zachary’s confirmation mentor. They occasionally met in our treehouse.

Boyd is the kind of old man I’ll aspire to be, if I live long enough. Determined, curious, sometimes irreverent but always caring, Boyd has lived many lives in his nearly nine decades. He’s been a pastor, an author, a district superintendent–a job he still sees as inflated, if not ludicrous–a maintenance worker, a professor, and a self-appointed security officer.

When Boyd makes his security walks around campus, he stops in at various departments, doing covert pastoral checks on his often wayward flock. A couple of weeks ago, he came by the campus ministry office to talk about an idea he’d first mentioned to me in an e-mail.

“Why?” he asked, raising his hands in righteous bewilderment. “Why on earth do we pay so much attention to Donald Trump when the Apostle Paul paid so little to Emperor Nero?”

It’s a great question, and one Boyd has the pedigree to ask. Aside from his life experience, he is a careful observer of politics. He’s also a New Testament scholar, having taught Life and Letters of Paul at Dakota Wesleyan for several years. He knows of what he speaks.

And like many great teachers, he makes his point in the form of a question. When I go to answer it, I can’t help but feel a bit chastised.

History is filled with Neros and Trumps, men of great influence but weak character who loom over everyday life. They crave power, and they derive it from attention. The more we talk about them–even in opposition–the more we play into their hands.

For Paul, however, the emperor was barely worthy of mention. He could cause problems, of course. In fact, he could and did inflict real suffering. But in Paul’s perspective, he was nothing but an annoyance, a fly buzzing across the field of vision, a minor distraction from the real scene before us.

For Paul and for Boyd, that larger scene is Jesus–his life and death, his teaching and his disciples. The spectacle of resurrection and the God-infused life that followed are, in this view, the only things really worth talking about.

I’ve taken Boyd’s observation to heart lately. I spend less time reading the news–a healthy lifestyle change for any political junkie–and more time on the positives around me. And when I get caught off guard by the president’s latest atrocity, I remember Boyd’s question and shoo him away with the disinterest he deserves.

I’ve got bigger things to focus on, and I’m happier for it.

Interruptions

If my count is correct, I began a new blog post four times yesterday. This morning, as I type my second sentence, I’m already further along than I got on the previous four.

Lack of focus? No. Writer’s block? Not this time. The clear and undisputed reason why my Monday blog is waiting until Tuesday to go up is interruptions. Dozens of people dropped by my office yesterday, sometimes knocking on the doorframe–my office door usually stays open–and sometimes just standing there until I noticed them.

Among the reasons for stopping by:

  • “Can I leave my backpack in here while I go to lunch?”
  • “Did I miss anything? I’m nervous about missing something.”
  • “Check out my new iPad.”
  • “Why is it never simple? Why can’t things just work the way they’re supposed to?” (this was unrelated to the iPad)
  • “I left my backpack in the chapel. Have you seen it?” (apparently backpacks were a thing on Monday)
  • “Do you have any candy?”
  • “I have nothing to do, so I decided to come in here and talk.” (three of these)

There were others–more than I bothered to count, ranging from the very trivial to the very personal. All told, the interruptions took up almost my entire day.

Through the lens of good ol’ American productivity, Monday was wasted. I didn’t produce a single tangible artifact to justify my paycheck–no reports, no sermons, no meeting notes. If, as one of my former bishops suggested, outputs are the only things that matter, then I started off the week with a colossal failure.

Fortunately for me, however, my vocation is viewed through a more personal lens. If we pastors are to reflect the life and teachings of Jesus, then we have to take seriously his style of working. Rarely was Jesus too focused on a goal to stop for someone who needed help or healing or hope. If you want examples, read Mark 5 or Matthew 14.

Oftentimes, interruptions were his work.

I don’t think this principle applies just to religious endeavors. The annals of science, literature, politics, and a host of other disciplines are filled with stories of discoveries made because someone stopped to pay attention to what might easily have been classified as an obstacle to their goal. Interruptions aren’t necessarily impediments to the creative process. In fact, they may be necessary parts of it.

And so I’m trying to view my interruptors not as drags on my time, but as co-collaborators in our life-sized project. After all, it’s the intersections with one another that make our lives interesting.

 

Friends

Slowly but surely, the campus outside my window is coming to life, although not everyone realizes it. The fall sport athletes–they won’t really be students until next week–move more like zombies, beaten down as they are by minor injuries and conditioning drills. Imagine watching Rudy, only with the cast of The Walking Dead.

Ice packs and ankle boots notwithstanding, the return of undergrads to campus brings a tide of good feelings, carried by the sounds of conversation and laughter that once again fill the student center. Almost none of them realize that I’m watching, much less how vital their relationships are to my own well being. But their friendships are more than just a way to enhance their own student experience. They’re a witness to the best things about my work in higher ed. Without friendship, college ministry would be impossible.

I would say a similar thing about Christian discipleship.

Last Sunday, I spoke to our church about one of my more odd possessions–a copy of an icon known as “Christ and Abbot Mena.” The original, on display now at the Louvre, dates back to a Coptic monastery in Egypt sometime in the 8th century. The older man, identified as “Apa Mena superior” by the inscription near his halo, holds the rule of the monastery in one hand and raises the other in blessing.

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“Christ and Abbot Mena,” also referred to as “Christ and His Friend.”

What’s most striking about the icon, however, is the figure of Jesus. He is not distant, not some theoretical savior or far-off ruler. Rather, Jesus stands next to Mena, his arm draped over the abbot’s shoulder. It is not a transactional gesture between lord and underling. It’s a sign of friendship, of intimacy. No surprisingly, the icon is often referred to as Christ and His Friend.

I received my copy of the icon at an academy for spiritual formation I was part of about ten years ago. Trevor Hudson, a United Methodist Pastor from South Africa, emphasized the importance of friendship as part of a cycle of grace: acceptance leads to sustenance, which leads to significance and ultimately to fruitfulness.

Unfortunately, the larger part of American culture gets the cycle backwards. We seek and reward fruitfulness–results!–and derive our significance from there. But the cycle doesn’t work in reverse. For grace to be grace, it has to come first–before we’ve done anything worth putting on our resume.

I’m not a particularly sentimental guy, but this icon is among the few possessions that I truly value. I don’t always know who God is, and it’s hard for me to wrap my brain around who Jesus is sometimes. But I know what it is to be and have a friend. I’ve been blessed with many of them over the years. They make me a healthier person and a better human.

The picture of Christ with his arm around his friend helps me think about Jesus not as an abstraction or concept or idea, but as a person–as a friend, someone who embodies love and acceptance and sustenance. Someone who helps me believe in my own significance, before I have anything to show for my work.

This, I think, is how the world gets transformed for the better–not by coalitions implementing ideas, but by people who put themselves on the line for one another as friends. Such friendships give us hope. They bring us back to life. And who can say how much good they do for the people we didn’t know were watching?

Faith Minus the Mountain

When I remember times in my life when faith was easy, I think of mountains.

My late teens and early twenties–the formational decade of my adult person–were littered with retreats atop Petit Jean and Hikes on Mt. Nebo. While in graduate school, I spent more than one weekend mountain-biking in the western Appalachians. On a ski trip with some friends, I saw the Rockies for the first time, and kept my face turned to the window so no one would see me crying.

When I think of these mountains of my young adulthood, they are intimately tied to my

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A view from Mt. Nebo, near Dardanelle, AR.

experience of God. More than once, I remember being so overwhelmed by the beauty that surrounded me that I questioned how anyone could deny that it was formed by a good creator with good intent. I felt small on the mountains, but I also felt loved. The mountains helped me zoom away from the pettiness of everyday life. They restored my patience. They renewed my hope.

I haven’t lived in the mountains for a very long time.

In geological terms, the last time I lived among mountains was fifteen years ago, when Denise and I spent time in Rapid City, SD. Since then, we have progressively moved to terrain that is flatter, emptier, and less populated than each previous stop.

My spiritual life has followed suit. The easy relationships of my schooling gave way to the politics of professional ministry, and eventually my disillusionment with much of American religious life. I’m still a Christian and still a pastor, and still happy with that most days. But I’m more alone more often than I used to be, and acutely aware that some of my bigger life goals are not likely to materialize. I don’t sleep as well. My shoulders hurt a lot of the time.

I realize this is all just part of the emotional landscape of my age group, and as I’ve said before, it’s not all bad. But for me, the trek through the expansive flatlands of early middle-age is a tougher slog than the more vertical terrain of my youth. I’m never quite sure when I’ll reach the next mountain. And when I do, the view from the top doesn’t seem quite as clear as it once did.

All of this makes faith harder than it used to be, back when so much of my future had not yet been realized. Not impossible, but harder.

Faith has taken on a different character for me these last few years. It doesn’t grip me from mountaintops quite like it once did. It no longer seems like something outside of me, a destination I arrive at unexpectedly. Rather, faith is a crop I’m growing, even when the soil isn’t very good. It takes care and vigilance, and more trust than I’m comfortable with. It recognizes more than ever how much is beyond my control, how desperate I am for the Bible stories I preach to turn out to be true.

Is the faith I have now stronger or weaker than it was in my mountainous days, back when it seemed so much easier to believe? I ask myself this question sometimes, but I don’t think it’s entirely fair. Faith is not an all-or-nothing proposition. It’s a continuum. And if Jesus is to be believed, you don’t have to be far on that continuum–no further than a mustard seed, as a matter of fact–to be credited with faith.

While I miss the mountaintop faith I had years ago, I’m not trying to find it again. Each step is new territory for me, and it’s better to find a way to live with new conditions than to try to return to some gilded past. I still stop by the mountains on occasion, and I’m still moved by the view.

But I know better than to put all my trust in what I feel. Faith that lasts a lifetime requires so much more.