Take a Closer Look
It was a simple conversation on an innocuous morning phone call - but it triggered pain still present in an old wound. Which then prompted thoughts about another painful place inside of me... and so on… and so on. Before I recognized what was happening, I had spent a few hours ruminating on the ways people had hurt me and disappointed me. The pain was legitimate - and there are appropriate ways to attend to it. But I wasn’t attending to my pain. I was blaming and projecting - letting myself go over and over what had been said and what had been done to me. All my thoughts and grumbling about “those people" tumbled around in my head like a bulky comforter in the dryer. Just when I think it’s finally done, I discover some wet, twisted corner deep inside.
I found myself getting very angry - and all this while preparing to share a talk with a group of leaders on the topic of paying attention to what is going on inside of us. Ironic? Perhaps. An invitation from the Lord? Absolutely.
When I consider the idea of paying attention, I think about it in two different ways. First, attentiveness in the present moment – awareness of what is happening within me and around me at this very place and in this very space and time. Sometimes paying attention involves simply being present to myself and the Lord. No one else is there. Other times, it involves paying attention to others and to what is going on inside of me as I am with them. The second way I think about paying attention is in the act of reflecting – taking time to stop and think deeply about an experience that is in the past, either recent or not so recent.
Both paying attention in the present moment as well as in reflecting on something that has already happened are ways in which we can invite the Lord to meet us through the practice of spiritual disciplines - especially disciplines that enable us to take a deeper and more thoughtful look into ourselves.
In the talk I was preparing for the leaders at my church, I offered this quote:
“A leader is a person who must take special responsibility for what’s going on inside him/herself, inside his or her consciousness, lest the act of leadership do more harm than good.” – Parker Palmer
Palmer says that we need to notice what is going on inside of us - to pay special attention to it, so that our leadership does good rather than harm. Whether we consider ourselves leaders or not, each of us has influence on people in our lives. Therefore, we have the potential of influencing others in ways that lead them toward Christlikeness or away from it. Sadly, the effects of not taking responsibility for paying attention can be found throughout Scripture, but I’ll just mention one of the most prominent examples from the life of King David.
“In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab, and his servants with him, and all Israel. And they ravaged the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem. It happened, late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful.” 2 Samuel 11:1-2 (ESV)
It's likely you know David’s story well. It was the anniversary of the Ammonite aggression, and all the kings were going out to battle – all except David. He sent Joab and all the fighting men of Israel to war against the Ammonites and defeat them. But where was David? He was in Jerusalem. This might have been something that David could have paid attention to in his life. At a time when “kings go out to battle” why did he send everyone else out to fight and then stay in Jerusalem himself? Perhaps pausing to reflect and take responsibility at that point could have thwarted further events. (You likely know the rest of the story but if not, you can read it in 2 Samuel 11). King David’s choices and lack of paying attention to what was going on inside of him - at several critical points - led to devastating losses in his life and in the lives of those he led.
It took the prophet Nathan confronting David to get him to reflect on what he had done. Author Jan Johnson writes, “It’s not the experience that brings transformation, it’s our reflection upon our experience.”
Ideally, we need to learn to take a closer look at what is going on inside of us BEFORE we make the big mistakes that cause harm to ourselves and others. How valuable would it be to have a spiritual discipline that would help us prayerfully attend to our thoughts and experiences? A practice that immediately comes to mind is the Examen –a simple prayer of paying attention. It is a spiritual discipline in which we take time to pause in the presence of the Lord and open ourselves to listen for the loving voice of the Holy Spirit as we observe our day together with Him. The Examen is a spiritual practice of paying prayerful attention to what was going on inside of us (emotions and feelings) and to what was going on around us (people and events) throughout the day.
The Examen is a prayer practice that I have written about in more detail in a previous blog. Yet, it is worth mentioning again here because it is a spiritual discipline that can be engaged with in a number of ways. On the morning I described above, there was no need for me to wait until later in the evening to practice the Examen. The invitation I sensed in that moment was to set everything aside, to pause, and to review my entire morning with the Lord.
The value of taking time for this practice is in the slowing down and paying attention. It is a prayer in which we open ourselves to the agenda of the Holy Spirit. We notice what He calls to our attention and if there is an invitation to an action, we respond.
Below I have written out a simple guide for practicing the Examen.
A Practice of the Examen
Take one minute to draw close to the presence of the Lord with you. (Psalm 139:7)
Notice how deeply you are loved. (Psalm 86:15)
Begin with gratitude, inviting the intimate presence of the Lord to help you see both Him and yourself more clearly. (Psalm 139:14)
Invite the Holy Spirit to review the day with you. This is a discipline of self-awareness so pay attention to what you were feeling as well as to the facts of the events and interactions with others.
Listen to what the Spirit draws your attention to. When were you most aware of God’s presence? When were you least aware of His presence?
Pray Psalm 139:23-24 – “God, I invite you to search my heart. Examine me through and through; make me aware of my hidden thoughts and motives."
Notice if there are any invitations from the Lord.
Close with gratitude for how He has met you in this prayer practice.