Spiritual Formation by Attention

Spiritual Formation by Attention

There are no uninteresting things, only uninterested people.” — G. K. Chesterton

People love to focus on the high points or mountain top experiences when it comes to the spiritual life. While God certainly grants these super-concentrated spiritual experiences, have you considered that you can’t live on a mountain? What grows on a mountain top? Lush grass, fields of tulips, and large herds of sheep are found down in the lowly, mundane, normal parts of the earth. And in the Christian life, there is so much joy to be found by simply paying attention to the ordinariness of life—that’s what I learned from Pixar’s movie, Soul.

[spoilers in the next paragraph]

In Soul, the main character, Joe, is frustrated with his life. He wants to make it as a famous jazz musician, not as a public school band teacher. And just as he is about to get his first break—he dies. In Soul’s version of the afterlife, Joe sneaks off into the “prelife” arena, a place for souls in training, before they are sent to earth. It’s there that Joes meets a soul named 22 that doesn’t want to be sent into a human body, while Joe only wants to be reunited with his body lying in a coma in the hospital. Eventually, Joe and 22 barrel towards earth to reunite Joe’s soul with his body, only for the wires to get crossed. 22 ends up in Joe’s body, while Joe ends up in a cat. Despite a human soul docking in a cat’s body—a touching and profound moment happens in the remainder of Soul. As 22, voiced by Tina Fey, experiences life in Joe’s body, 22 enjoys human life. 22 wants life. The smell and taste of a large, flimsy slice of greasy pepperoni pizza. The sweetness of a lollipop. Laughter, leaves, and everything that comes with life is thrilling to 22.

That’s the point. Life is amazing. 

We are bored by the mundane things of life because we aren’t paying attention. G.K. Chesterton was right, “There are no uninteresting things, only uninterested people.” Progress in the spiritual life isn’t found by tuning out what is around you and trying to connect with some higher frequency than this drab human life. Wrong. What does Jesus teach us to pray? “On earth as it is in heaven.” We want the reality of our Triune God, our Creator, Lord, and Savior—all that is really real with the God of the gospel—to change the way we live today. Here and now. Spiritual eyes change the way you see life. Michael Reeves echoes Chesterton, “Our boredom is simple blindness.”

Enjoy God and His Gifts

Trees are never just trees. They are fruits of the creative genius of God. You are looking at a masterpiece. The blue sky is not just wallpaper or window dressing; it is God’s imaginative power testifying of his glory, power, and strength. Rainbows, thunderstorms, tornadoes. “Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well” (Psalm 139:14). The smell of coffee, the laugh of a child, the love of a spouse, the company of a friend, the emotions from a movie, the weekend nap—pay attention, and you’ll see God’s blessings and mercy all around you. I’ve written on this previously over at Desiring God, and I’d encourage you to check out that piece as well.

French theologian, John Calvin (d. 1564), encourages this spirituality of attentiveness in his Institues of the Christian Religion:

“Let us not be ashamed to take pious delight in the works of God open and manifest in this most beautiful theater…wherever we cast our eyes, all things they meet are works of God, and at the same time to ponder with pious meditation to what end God created them”

Pious delight, meaning, spiritual enjoyment. Attentiveness is an accelerant for adoration. The world is a theater, a stage where God displays his wonders. Calvin goes on to write how creation can serve as a mirror that is actively reflecting to us the attributes of God. Martin Luther (d. 1546) encouraged a depressed friend to take joy in the gifts of life. “Be merry, then, both inwardly in Christ himself and outwardly in his gifts and the good things of life.” Take delight in daily life. It’s a spiritual act of worship. God’s goodness can be enjoyed in a handful of salty popcorn, the tang of sour gummy worms, or the exchanges of “I love you” at bedtime. Life is filled with excitement and joy. God made it for your joy and his glory. We only need to pay attention.

Attention for Formation 

Attentiveness is one of the reasons why Seinfeld continues to be a relatable comedy of epic proportions. Attention to life is one reason why comedian Nate Bargatze is a hit. Whether you are listening to The Nateland Podcast, him and two comedian buddies talking about nothing and eveything, or you are watching his new special on Netflix, Nate pays attention to life. And life, my friends, is hilarious. The best comedians, authors, songwriters, actors, and preachers pay attention to everyday life. They have developed the knack of paying attention to what most of us have glazed over and chalk up to just another day in the neighborhood. A sense of wonder will serve us wonders.

We must begin to see that every day, every moment, every conversation, every commute to work, every meal is primed for spiritual formation. “Christian practice in matters of spiritual formation goes badly astray,” writes Eugene Peterson, “when it attempts to construct or organize ways of spirituality apart from the ordinariness of life.” Folding laundry is humble service, an act of love. Driving kids to soccer or swim are holy moments of parenting and discipleship. Settling in for the night with a book or a Netflix binge are shadows of Sabbath. This day was good. This is good. Praise the Lord.

You may soon find that attention and contentment love to hang out together. Combat discontentment, not by daydreaming, goal setting, or Pinterest boards, but by attending to what God has already done for you in the gospel, what God is doing for you now in the Spirit of the Son, in your life, your family, your church, and considering what God is doing in every day of the week that ends with y.

Mountain tops are great, but so is the dog trying to scratch her back on the living room floor. God made that crazy creature. God made our senses, salt and pepper, sound waves, our nervous system, and the Church of the risen Christ. Your life is already stacked with spiritual delights. Pay attention to your life. You might just find a treasure hidden in a field.

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