If distracting yourself from any and everything was an Olympic event, I would medal every time. The problem with staying distracted is that it keeps me (it keeps all of us, really) from staying in the present moment. It shields our ability to imagine possibilities and dream of new realities. Most importantly, it keeps us from paying attention to what God is doing all around us. When we think of spiritual practices, we tend to think of specific prayers, meditations, journaling exercises, but I think many of us are missing the practice underneath all of them: resisting the urge to distract ourselves, and actually pay attention. The very act of paying attention is at the core of each and every one our other spiritual practices because if we stop paying attention we lose our ability to identify the most sacred of moments in our everyday lives.
I grew up in a tradition that viewed the emotional experiences I had with God as the most important part of being a Christian. If I did not feel God, then I was doing something to cause that. God hadn’t moved. I had, and it was my responsibility to fix it. If I worshiped authentically enough, walked shamefully to the altar enough, prayed perfectly and often enough, then I would find my way back to God. It never occurred to me, at the time, that God was already all around me. I just didn’t know where to look. It wasn’t until just a couple of years ago I began to understand the deep grace of seeing God’s work in the most simple of ways.
If enough attention is paid, just about anything can become a way we encounter God in our lives. The practices that help me most change depending on where I am in life. During college and seminary, reading the Bible was homework. But, meaningful conversations and laughter with my best friend fed my soul in ways that nothing else could. And God was there, present in the face of my friend and our shared joy.
In my battle with anxiety and depression, cleaning out my refrigerator felt like cleaning out all the darkness in my soul and fear in my mind. And God was there, present in the tears that reflected my aching heart.
The very act of breathing can become prayer if I make space and pay attention. And God’s own breath fills my lungs. The very breath that hovered in the darkness and chaos before anything but God existed sustains my life.
I wonder if practicing the art of paying attention helps all of us recognize what God is doing in and around us. I just wonder how differently I would have understood God throughout my teens and early twenties if I had learned what it meant to encounter God in a variety of ways instead of just one.
I cannot tell you what practices will sustain you specifically. I do know that discovering the practices I could do at any time throughout the day opens my heart and eyes to the work that God is doing in and around me. Learning to see how sacred it is to look into the eyes of the person stocking grocery shelves and acknowledging our shared humanity and beloved-ness in the eyes of God changes everything. Listening to the beauty of birds signing after a long, harsh Midwestern winter connects me to the entirety of all of creation, a creation that God is re-creating and redeeming even when I am too consumed with myself to notice.
If I could pass anything along that I believe to be life-changing to the children, youth, and families in my local parish, it is what I have written here. The sacred work of God is present in every moment of every day. God is present in the exhaustion of late-night paper-writing, the joy of children’s laughter, the spontaneity of dancing in the kitchen, and in eating our favorite foods around a table with those we love, because God is inherently connected to all of creation, without qualification or exception.
The challenge I have and will always have is to choose to pay attention in a world where distraction is as easy as taking my phone out of the back pocket of my jeans. Practice will never make us perfect, but it might just help us greet the places where God is at work with openness and a desire to love as deeply as God does, especially in the most boring and fulfilling moments of everyday life.