by Dan Baumgartner
Pay attention. People in the churches I’ve served are surely either starting to do it, or sick and tired of me saying it. Or both. Pay attention. Pay attention to God’s voice. Pay attention to what the Holy Spirit is doing around us all the time. Listen for the voice, watch for the person who coincidentally crosses your path, notice the timing of events, see if a word from scripture shimmers, look for beauty and surprise in nature, be attentive to what your soul inexplicably responds to.
We are now ten months into this rotten pandemic, and while generally things are okay for me, I’ve also felt a little dry at times. Maybe like Tolkien’s Bilbo, feeling “…thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” I’m praying and journaling and reading, but it’s a good thing that I’ve set those practices because some days it’s far more about discipline than desire.
Most often, it is scripture that rouses me from my lethargy. That happens regularly for me while immersed in work on a sermon, but in one case I was in the car, and all it took was a reference to the Bible. It was early August. Anne and I were driving, returning home to Santa Rosa, CA from a whirlwind, coast-to-coast drive to New Jersey for our daughter Dana’s wedding to Teddy. It was early, maybe 7am, and the golden sunrise was showing in the rearview mirror. We were barreling west on I-80 through thousands of acres of Nebraska farmland. Glancing to the side of the road, I saw an old truck parked in a field with a message on its side in block letters: “JESUS LOVES YOU AND WANTS TO SAVE YOU. PLEASE READ HIS BOOK, THE HOLY BIBLE, KJV.” Boom. I confess, I did wonder why they had to add the universally acknowledged poor quality “KJV” translation to the admonition. But then I thought, there’s a story there. What went on in one person’s life, how did God grab ahold of them and give motivation to put that message there? I wondered if they had grown up in nearby Chappell, NE (population 929). Did they marry? Have kids? Work a farm? Belong to a faith community? Live a long life? Every single person on earth has a unique story.
From there I kept musing about our lives as stories, narratives with beginnings and endings, plot twists and surprises. I thought about several people inside and outside our congregation encountering tough times, in one case calamities of Job-ian proportions, and all the questions that accompany such situations, normally without satisfying answers. Then I realized how much it has helped me lately to simply acknowledge that each of us has a different story we are living. No matter how much we like to think we are in control, we don’t write our own narratives. We have some autonomy, but not control. A scripture floated through from Psalm139: “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”
It’s the strangest thing, but that encounter with a reference to scripture on an old truck at the side of the freeway opened a door in me. A floodgate, really. Even three or four months later, my paying attention senses are inexplicably more alert. I’m noticing God showing up all over the place. Toward the end of summer, we had an outdoor, masked, socially distanced small memorial service for a member of our church who worked with kids for years in our after-school program. During the sharing time, her brother-in-law said “At family holidays, Aunt Julie was the one who never, ever sat at the grown-up table.” Out of all the good and true words of scripture and consolation spoken at the service, that’s the one I had to quickly jot down. I wonder if people said the same about Jesus? I wonder if I’m spending too much time at the grown-up table?
Not long after, I went on a long bike ride through the stunning Sonoma County vineyards, long and lush rows of green leaves hiding fruit now poised for harvest. As I worked my way up a rolling hill, an elderly farmer paused in his driveway atop a bright orange tractor, waiting for me to pass. When I drew close, he called “Top of the morning to ye, my friend!” in something that sounded like a mild Irish brogue. When I returned his greeting as I went by, he responded with a benediction: “Enjoy the morning and be safe!” That’s all. A blessing for an unknown biker.
If I really believe that the Holy Spirit is everywhere, all the time, working, then I don’t want to miss even the smallest encounter. I want to notice. I want to watch and listen. We can’t manufacture these moments, but we can easily miss them. We don’t write or control our own narratives, but we have the autonomy to embrace them. And watch for God’s hand. I choose to pay attention. Lord, help my inattentiveness.
Dan Baumgartner is the senior pastor at The Cove in Santa Rosa CA and serves as a member of The Fellowship Community board.