January 21, 2018 – Paying Attention

Text:   Jonah 3:1-4, 4:1-11

Last week, my family and I were driving to a farm in Beausejour. We had been invited to a birthday party, a snowshoe Scrabble Derby at the farm. The farm wasn’t in the Google Map. We navigated through the hidden intersection and gravel roads, while enjoying the beautiful scenery of this winter wonderland. When I was just about to arrive at the farm, I saw a father pulling a child on the sled. I slowed down my car, and moved aside to avoid them. Assuming that they were part of the snowshoe scrabble derby, I pulled down the window and said hi. The father said hi back to me with a smiling face. And then he said, “Your car is stuck.” I moved my car too much to the side without realizing that the snow on the both sides of the road was soft and deep. “But, I can help you.” He assured me right away. I sent my family away not to miss the derby while I remained in the car.  Soon after, there came two more helpers out of nowhere. They were amazing; they were like angels without wings. With a great teamwork, they helped get my car out from the snow.

Friendly Manitoba. I believe that. This is where strangers become friends. It takes naiveté, the lack of driving experience in rural areas in winter, to realize that there are more helpers out there than you think. It takes cold weather, lots of snow and someone who was not born and raised here to feel the temperature of the hearts of the people in Manitoba. It warms my heart every time I think about my experience, getting a help from total strangers. That gives me hope. No matter how difficult it seems to live a life, no matter how far we have to go to reach our destiny, we can take one step at a time knowing that we are not alone.

Loneliness and isolation are the words that have been brought to my attention since I came to Canada. They are not the same, but they are equally painful. Loneliness is a feeling of sadness or distress about being by yourself or feeling disconnected from the world around you. It is possible to feel lonely, even when surrounded by people. Isolation is being separated from other people and your environment. You want to connect but you are unable to do so. I don’t know which is worse. We suffer from both loneliness and isolation.

I know both well. There were times when I needed to belong, and wanted to participate but I couldn’t because of the language barrier and cultural differences. There were times when I was in desperate need of friends but nobody was there. The danger of isolation is that it can change you into a different person, and it can convince you to accept that that’s the way things are. It’s hard for isolated people to reach out for help because they have already been helpless and powerless. This is where an intervention is needed. A personal invitation works the best. Paying attention can save people. Simone Weil, a French philosopher, mystic, and political activist said, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” She also said, “The capacity to pay attention to an afflicted person is something very rare, very difficult; it is nearly a miracle. It is a miracle. Nearly all those who believe they have this capacity do not. Warmth, movements of the heart, and pity are not sufficient.”

I couldn’t agree more. I have met lots of people who are nice, and who show pity, but I have seldom met people who have the capacity to pay attention to others. I was able to find my way because of those who did pay attention to me. Those who practice paying attention do not necessarily give you advice or an answer. Instead, they empower you by listening to your story. They empty themselves so you can find a place in their hearts to rest. They are so present that you can find the answer you are looking for.

Our minds wander around most of the time. They don’t seem to know how to be still. In our minds we move from one place to another in a second, not to mention the time travel going back and forth between different times. Our emotions come and go. They are real but temporary. What keeps us focused on the here and now is paying attention. It has the power to stop our assumptions and to change our perceptions. We engage the world by paying attention, whether it’s a particular tree, a plant, a bird, a fox, the river, the sky, the same people and their dogs we often encounter, or the tired person who works at the front desk in the crowded medical clinic. We don’t say, we pay attention to TV. We say, we watch TV. We watch news. Watching doesn’t do anything. We can feel sorry or upset for what’s happening in the world, but we can also feel helpless knowing that there is nothing we can do about it. By paying attention, however, we have already begun the change we want to bring about. While paying attention we give our time, our energy, our listening ear, our compassionate heart to the person or situation we pay attention to. To pay attention is to free ourselves from being caught up in our egoistic and individualistic worldview. It’s about loving others as we love ourselves, and about giving our whole selves knowing that we are deeply connected with one another. By paying attention in the here and now, the old categories of us and them can dissolve.

I wish Jonah paid attention to the people in Nineveh. The reluctant prophet, Jonah tries to run away. When God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh and tell the people of their great wickedness and call them to repentance, he immediately goes in the opposite direction. Many adventures later – adventures involving not only a great fish but also pagan sailors who are far more just and compassionate than Jonah – he ends up in Nineveh anyway. This is a very tough thing that God has asked of him. Nineveh is the capital city of Assyria, the nation that had enslaved and oppressed the northern part of Israel, yet they are to repent and be forgiven. Jonah begins to go into the city, and grudgingly cries out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” That’s all. And the Bible says that the people of Nineveh believed God, and God changed his mind. That upsets Jonah very much and he becomes angry. Notice what happens next. Jonah goes out of the city and sits down east of the city, and makes a booth for himself there. He sits under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. Jonah never pays attention to anything or anyone so he never changes his mind. The book of Jonah is not so much about the conversion of Nineveh as the conversion of Jonah, which is only possible if Jonah engages the people in the city by paying attention instead of waiting to see what would happen.

Strangers become friends when we pay attention. It is here in paying attention that we get to know that there is no enemy, and that there is no such thing as us and them. No one lives alone. We are all part of everyone we’ve met, and those we haven’t met yet, being loved by God who constantly pays attention to the whole creation.