From The Attentive Life
This God creates, playfully, purposefully – out of nothing – space and stars, sun and moon, light and darkness, dandelions and donkeys, whales and kingfishers, and a handsome couple. And then he doesn’t get bored: he sees everything he has made and takes delight in it. And instead of standing at a distance, he comes to visit his creatures in a garden in the cool of the evening.
But things don’t go happily ever after. Still, when Adam and Eve are not mindful of him and the good boundaries he has set, he doesn’t walk away and wash his hands. He walks in the spoiled garden and calls, “Where are you?” – still paying attention.
Later he does wash the whole world he made with a flood. But even then he is paying attention, starting the creation all over again with one man and his family and an ark like a menagerie of animals. Not one escapes his attention!
The story goes on. He pays attention to one nomad, Abraham, and makes him a father of nations. Pays attention to the cries of slaves, and makes Moses pay attention to a burning bush so he will heed the call to lead them out.
And this God looks with insight as well as sight. Why does God choose David as the king of Israel? While the people choose leaders because they look attractive on the outside, God looks on “the heart.” He sees that this shepherd lad, who pays attention to stars and sheep, also knows that “the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are attentive to their cry,” (Psalm 34:15).
Fast-forward through the centuries. Wayward as his people are, God never stops paying attention, until he comes up with the biggest attention-getter of all. The lens of the story moves in from wide-angle to close-up. It zooms in on one unmarried virgin, who listens with her heart when the angel Gabriel comes to tell her that God is paying special attention to her.
And he pays attention quietly. His son is born not in a palace with fanfare and flares across the evening sky but in a manger, in the stillness of a Middle Eastern night.
We all know there is a difference between people who pay attention to us, which we all want deeply, and those who force their attentions on us, which something in us resists strongly. God pays, not demands, attention. And yet the greatest wonder of all is that when we ignore him, he still longs for, yearns for, our attention.
Jesus told the story of a landowner whose tenant farmers do not pay attention to their work or to him, who refuse to pay him what they owe. The landowner sends messengers to ask them to pay up, but they beat and shamefully treat them. Finally he sends his own son, sure they will respect this final gesture. But shamefully, they seize and kill the son.
It is more than a parable. God does send his Son to live in his own creation and to seek our attention. He pays attention without clamor – to the fine smoothness of the wood he planes in the carpenter’s shop… to the words of God he learns from the ancient scripture… to the stirrings of his own young heart sensing that he must above all be about his Father’s business.
When the time comes, Jesus pays attention
- to the bronzed faces of the fishermen he calls to be with him;
- to the hardened faces of the tax collectors and offbeat characters he recruits as his disciples;
- to the longing face of an outcast woman by a well;
- to the seeking face of a philosopher who comes to talk by night;
- to the pleading face of one blind beggar by the road;
- to the taunting faces of the soldiers who nail him to the cross;
- to the pain-wracked face of a thief dying beside him on the cross;
- to his mother, whom in his last moments he commends to the care of his beloved disciple John.
He is the Great Attender!
And the mind with which he paid attention was the mind of his Father – the One who had been paying attention all along.
“Don’t you know,” he said (here I paraphrase), “that God pays attention to one broken-winged sparrow when it falls? That he pays attention to the flowers in springtime? That he is so detail-oriented that he can tell you exactly how many hairs are left on your balding skull?”
Once he painted a word picture of this God.
Don’t you know that God is like a father whose no-account son has demanded his inheritance, left home, and squandered it all on wine, woman, and song? But this father waits every evening at the gate of the village, peering into the distance, never for a moment forgetting that ne’er-do-well. And when the son drags himself home, broke and broken, the father sprints out to give him a huge hug, throwing for him the biggest party you ever saw, giving him a brand-new wardrobe and the finest jewelry as if he were the very best son a father could ever have. Don’t you know God is like that?
(See Luke 15.)
“No,” his amazed listeners would say, “We have no fathers like that in our village. We would either declare such a son as dead to us, no son at all, or if he came back begging, put him on probation for a long time.”
To which Jesus would reply, so gently, so strongly: “But that is exactly what God is like. God loves like that. His love is focused attention. He does not force his attention on you. But he still longs for you.” And out of that love Jesus himself wept over the city that had ignored him, lamenting that he had longed to gather Jerusalem’s children together “as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing,” (Matthew 23:37).