“May it be the real I who speak. May it be the real thou that I speak to.” – C.S. Lewis
So often I feel slightly nervous about books that have titles relating to finding God’s voice and presence in all things. I fear from their titles that when I open them up, their comfort in the ‘long dark night of the soul’ will be a pat answer that God loves me. Often I feel the guilt of not being able let go of questions like ‘Why?’ ‘Where were you when _____, God?’ ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ (John 11:21), and just see his presence in all things around me.
Fortunately, Leighton Ford’s The Attentive Life goes much deeper than simply offering an undeniably beautifully made world to fall back on when we want to find God. Ford points us back to where Esther points us – keeping your eyes truly focused, in the confusion of life, on the God of all grace.
Ford’s book begins by dissecting each ‘season’ of life, following a chapter pattern using the daily prayer schedule. Ford also includes short biographies at the end of each chapter that display the benefit of slowing down and being attentive. Ford also offers practical exercises for how to slow down and be attentive to what God is doing in our lives, in the world, and in our hearts.
Working as a psychologist, and as someone who has also borne the pain of loss and grief that an ordinary human life draws in a broken world, I find that we so often get offered – and offer ourselves – endless distraction as a salve to the hurting self. We’re told to hurry past pain – to distract ourselves when we suffer. It’s an unwanted shadow in an alley on the way home; just hurry by and hope that it doesn’t cling to us as we reach our own door. Think about the advice you’ve given, or been given a little while after you’ve gone through pain, or been hurt: ‘It’s time to move on,’ ‘Try not to dwell on it,’ ‘Just try to distract yourself,’ ‘It’s best to try not to think about it too much,’ ‘Time heals all wounds.’ Eventually every hurting soul with questions learns that it’s best to wallpaper over these moments. Stick the paper of time, entertainment, friends, work, relationships, and ministry over the wounds that life inflicts, until the wounds are so papered over that we can’t see them, can’t feel them. With these covered up, we feel the safe and confusing apathy of a soul that can’t answer questions, or sit with statements like: “Why do people die?” “Why do relationships end?” “I’m going to die one day,” “I might end up alone.” “What is it all for?” To stop distracting yourself, ‘keeping busy’ – would mean looking directly at them.
Ford’s The Attentive Life enters in at this point in a believer’s journey. Isn’t it precisely these points where God, and only God, is able to meet us? If we are on the constant run from these questions and have lost the ability to stop – because stopping means confronting hurts and fears – we are on the run from being attentive. We find safety in the rush and the distractibility. Inattentiveness is the cure to the pain that paying attention inflicts.
But being attentive is the heart of love, and what God gives and asks in return, is love. As Ford points out, when someone says “I don’t know what he sees in her!” about someone else’s partner, it is natural that we don’t. We haven’t spent the time getting to know their heart, looking in their eyes, feeling their touch and allowing them to be close to us. The same can be said of God. God’s love is sustained attention on our lives, on everything about us, on our fallen, rejecting world. God bears the endless humiliation of paying complete attention to beloved creatures who endlessly rebuff his love.
Ford’s book is a call to believers to slow down from the distractibility of life, and in turn, to focus our full attention on God – to learn to be truly still, and know that He is God. To turn our love – meaning our sustained attention – on Him. Reject the momentary fix of running from distraction to distraction (inattention), and turn on sustained attention. This means confronting the difficult questions and delivering them to God, who can answer them, in the time that He takes. While the world tells us to rush, God tells us to slow down. When the world says distract yourself and close your heart off to pain, God reaches in and tells us to keep our heart open so that He can write on it.
I am the guiltiest of this! I expect God to fix my life, my finances, my relationships, my pain, and my confusion in the time it takes for McDonald’s to make a cheeseburger. But Ford’s book is a timely reminder that Jesus calls us to a harder, but ultimately more fulfilling purpose – to have a ceaseless, unyielding orientation, attention, to Jesus alone. To look to Him in the times when a distraction would do the short term job. To know that He alone can satisfy our soul, and use our energies not to wallpaper over the hurts that a broken world inflicts on us, but instead allow ourselves to remain attentive to Him, despite the immediate cost of vulnerability to pain – to see God work in your life and in your heart.
Ford’s The Attentive Life asks the question and offers practical advice for the questions that Esther poses: Will you continue to pay attention to God and allow Him to work in your heart when you’re uncertain? Will you offer your attention and affection to God, knowing that He is in control, and is the only answer to the deep longings? Or will you turn away, choosing to lose yourself and Him, in a distraction?