The Practice of Paying Attention

Lesson: Mark 9:2-9

Everyone knows safety on an airplane is important, but almost no one pays attention to the safety instructions. Whether it started with the flight attendants themselves or elsewhere, airlines have found a solution. Flight attendants inject humor into the routine safety speech: “If you are sitting next to a small child, or someone who is acting like a small child, please do us all a favor and put on your own mask first.” “Please refrain from smoking until you reach a designated smoking area, which for California, is Las Vegas.” “Your menu choices are chicken or pasta. If we’re out of your choice by the time we get to you, don’t worry; they all taste the same.” “We just found a wallet in the aisle. Now that we have your attention here is some important safety information.”

Sometimes it takes something special to get people’s attention. That’s part of what’s going on in today’s passage in Mark. It’s a story we find in Matthew and Luke as well;[1] a story we hear every year on Transfiguration Sunday. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up the mountain, and there, Jesus is “transfigured.” His clothing becomes white with a brightness that’s not of this earth. Two other figures appear – Moses the lawgiver and the prophet Elijah. Don’t ask me how the disciples can tell who they are. They just know. Then God speaks: “This is my beloved son. Listen to him.” Suddenly they understand in a new and unforgettable way who Jesus is and what he is doing.

This spectacle is supposed to grab the disciples’ attention – and ours. Mark uses the supernatural as a way of waking us to the deepest reality about Jesus. The story invites us to pay attention to and be open to the supernatural. But I don’t mean magic; I don’t mean special effects. I mean a kind of openness to God; I mean watching and listening for God’s actions and God’s presence close to us, right here in the world. In our culture, we’ve come to equate “supernatural” with strange, miraculous, and maybe even unreal – with flashy events like the one Mark describes. But just maybe something can be supernatural – that is, holy and of God – and yet, commonplace, part of our ordinary lives. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Human beings may separate things into as many piles as we wish – separating spirit from flesh, sacred from secular, church from world. But we should not be surprised when God does not recognize the distinctions we make between the two. Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.”[2]

After all, many, if not most of us, say we believe God is everywhere. It’s what we teach small children and it’s fundamental to our faith; to most faiths, for that matter. An old Christian teaching says, “If you can’t find God in this place” – in this difficult situation, or in this destroyed city, or here in the midst of violence and hate – “you will not find God anyplace.” God is everywhere and there is no place God is not.[3]

Now, if we pause to think about this – that God is everywhere – it has huge implications. For starters, it means, as Taylor writes, that, “People can learn as much about the ways of God from business deals gone bad or sparrows falling to the ground as they can from reciting the books of the Bible in order. They can learn as much from a love affair or a wildflower as they can from knowing the Ten Commandments by heart.” She continues: “I do not have to choose between the Sermon on the Mount and the magnolia trees. … The House of God stretches from one corner of the universe to the other. Sea monsters and ostriches live in it, along with people who pray in languages I do not speak, whose names I will never know.”[4]

This means that God just might show up at work, at school, at the grocery store, at the gym; at an AA meeting, in a hospital room, in the nightly news, in our own struggles, in a movie or a song or a conversation. God might show up in Syria, in Puerto Rico, in North and South Korea; in Washington, D.C., and in San Anselmo.

The question is: Are we paying attention? Do we notice? And – are we transformed?

Sometimes we have no choice but to pay attention. The Transfiguration Mark describes couldn’t be ignored. Then again – could it? Could the disciples have dismissed it, the way Ebenezer Scrooge dismissed his ghostly visitors as indigestion in “A Christmas Carol”? In the story of Moses and the burning bush in Exodus, Moses sees the flames but it’s only after he turns aside that God speaks to him.[5] Maybe the disciples turned aside; maybe they were open and ready to see. Might it be possible that all of us have, ready and at hand, places that shimmer with grace, alerting us to the possibility that God is at work doing something we could not have predicted – if only we turn aside? That God is ready to speak to us and in particular, ready to transfigure or transform us, and our world?

Paying attention, turning aside, is a practice. It takes practice. There is a reason, perhaps, that Transfiguration Sunday is always the Sunday before Lent. In the early days of the church, Lent was the time when new converts prepared to be baptized on Easter Sunday. The more seasoned Christians also used Lent to reflect on whether they were living into their transfigured identity – more and more the person God created them to be, and more and more Christ-like. Lent has become a time to focus with new energy on the process of transfiguration that takes place over the lifetime of a person of faith. It is a time when people focus on their spiritual life – although when I say spiritual life, what I really mean is our whole lives. As someone said, “God is not interested in your ‘spiritual life.’ God is just interested in your life.”[6]

Our theme for Lent this year is “Breathe on Me, Breath of God.” We’ll look at different practices each Sunday during Lent, and if you go to our website, you can sign up to have a different spiritual practice emailed to you every day. The hope is that, in these turbulent times, we can develop practices that sustain us and give us hope; that we can have some sense that God’s Spirit is breathing on us and through us. The practice of paying attention is foundational to all the other practices because it means noticing that God is present and at work in the world. It means listening for the God who said, “Listen to Jesus” and who continues to speak, everyday. As Richard Rohr writes, “God comes to us disguised as our life. … God uses everything.”[7] All the other practices we’ll explore start with paying attention to God in the world.

How do we begin this practice? I’ll offer one starting place; there are certainly many more: Make it a practice to remember that each person, each encounter, each conversation has an element of the sacred.[8] Barbara Brown Taylor says it’s so easy to see the people around us as obstacles, but the remedy is to pay attention to them, even when they are in the way. She writes, “Just for a moment, I look for a human being instead of an obstacle. That boy who is crushing my portabellas does not know the first thing about mushrooms. He is, what, sixteen years old? … His fingernails are bitten to the quick. He is working so hard to impress the pretty young cashier that it is no wonder he does not see me. But I see him, and for just a moment he is more than a bag boy. He is a kid with his own demons, his own … budding lusts. I do not want too much information about any of this but I can at least let him be more than a bit player in my drama. I pay attention to him, and the fist in my chest lets go.” Taylor says to the boy, “Take it easy on the mushrooms, okay?” He cocks his head and grins. “These things are mushrooms?” he says, hauling them out of the bottom of the bag. “I wouldn’t eat one of those on a bet.”[9]

A variation on this practice, she says, is riding on the subway and studying people from behind her sunglasses: the girl with the fussy baby, the guy with the house paint all over his jeans, the couple holding hands. “Everyone of these people is dealing with something, the same way I am,” she writes. “Sometimes I say the Lord’s Prayer under my breath while I look from one to the next, but this is optional. Paying attention to them has already shifted my equilibrium.”

In other words, paying attention to them has already changed her. Transformed her. Transfigured her.

Taylor warns that paying attention can be a pain. “It is a lot easier to make chicken salad if you have never been stuck behind a chicken truck. It is easer to order a cashmere sweater if you do not know about Chinese goats.”[10] I read a compelling article this week about climate change. It was long and disturbing and everyone needs to read it, but it can be summarized in this one, short sentence: “[N]o matter how well-informed you are, you are surely not alarmed enough.”[11] God doesn’t speak to us only through faces on the subway or falling stars, but also through things that are hard for us to see, hard to hear; things we would much rather ignore or even disbelieve.

But Jesus reminds us by coming back down the mountain of something Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote: “The encounter with God does not come to [us] in order that [we] may henceforth attend to God but in order that [we] may prove its meaning in action in the world. All revelation is a calling and a mission.”[12] Peter wanted to stay; he wanted to soak up the glory. Anybody would. But Jesus returned to the world, to his life and ministry, and the first thing he does is heal a boy.

We pay attention in order to encounter God. We encounter God to be transformed. We are transformed in order to transform God’s world, God’s creation, God’s people, with love. Truth be told, the practice of paying attention probably is harder than giving up chocolate or Diet Coke. But the end, my friends, is always Easter. The end is new life.

May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.

© Joanne Whitt 2018 all rights reserved.

[1] Matthew 17:1-13; Luke 9:28-36.

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 15.

[3] McKenna, 53-54.

[4] Taylor, 13.

[5] Exodus 3:1-6.

[6] John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997), 17.

[7] Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1999), 130.

[8] McKenna, 35.

[9] Taylor, 27-28.

[10] Taylor, 32.

[11] David Wallace-Wells, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” New York Magazine, July 10, 2017,

[12] Martin Buber, I and Thou, translated by Walter Kaufman (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970), 164.

1 Comment

  1. Mary Ilyin

    Tue 13th Feb 2018 at 5:38 pm

    I am so grateful to have access of your sermons online. I was not there on Sunday, but now I can read and re-read your wise words.
    I will keep this near my heart during Easter season.


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