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There was once a Christian band called Jars of Clay and on their 2009 album, is a song called “Headphones.” They talked about being in the world, on trains, walking and everyone had little white cords coming from their ears. With headphones you don’t have to interact with the world around you and the people in it. With headphones you might miss a call for help. The world around us might be in trouble but we can walk through it with a soundtrack. They sing: It’s a heavy world, It’s too much for me to care, If I close my eyes, It’s not there; and I take in the war fires, and I’m chilled by the current events, It’s so hopeless, But there’s a pop song in my head. It’s a pretty catchy pop song.
I am guilty of this. I have small and large headphones to drive out the silence, or my own thoughts. When I take the dog for a walk, I have headphones that let me hear if someone is running up on me but my focus is pretty much on the story I am listening to. And there are often those who spend their whole walk with their pets looking at their phone. There are whole industries whose purpose is to get us to focus here—whether it’s our phones, TV shows, movies, even books, get us to focus here and not notice anything else, not notice anyone else.
It’s easy to walk the same sidewalks again and again, drive the same streets, follow the same routine and not notice anything. Certainly not notice that anything is subtly different.
Something about Moses noticed though.
Maybe it is because the woman who raised him from childhood was someone who noticed while going about her normal routine of bathing. She noticed a noise, a weird clump of weeds, movement, something that drew her attention and required her to do something about it.
Moses, a city kid, was living his best city life. He was married to the eldest daughter of a local priest. He had his future planned out, he had a place in his community, he had a job to do every day–taking care of those sheep.
Moses was beyond the wilderness, into the unknown, where it might not be quite as safe as if he had stayed close. He came to the base of Mount Horeb. He was milling around with his sheep, watching for wolves and bears and lions
A fire caught his eye. Couldn’t have been too big, just one bush. But he kept looking back, he kept noticing it. Maybe it burned too long, maybe he could see the branches hadn’t changed. Maybe he had to find out what was going on.
We don’t know how long God had been making the shrub blaze without burning up. It could have been that many people had walked by that spot. Maybe they were distracted by their sheep and they never even saw the fire. Maybe they noticed but decided it wasn’t their business, it’ll burn itself out in time. Maybe they were afraid of it was set so they would be distracted and someone would steal off with their sheep.
But not Moses, he noticed and he approached with openness, he received what it had to offer, and it changed his life.
At the end of August, journalist David Brooks published an essay “The Feminist Way to Wisdom.” He looked at the lives of three women living in and around Germany in the 1930’s and 40’s. All three were culturally Jewish and had experiences of the Cross that affected them deeply. What ran through their lives was the spiritual and moral act of attention.
Simone Weil wrote that “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”
Etty Hillesum has been described as a self-centered young woman before her experience of the cross and the war. [Her] biographer, Patrick Woodhouse, says something interesting about this transformation: “It was her practice of paying deep attention which transformed her.” Etty possessed what Woodhouse called an “acute perceptiveness.” Once she freed herself from her obsession with self, she was able to see other people in minute detail, observing one person’s rigid neck, another’s hungry look, another’s fearful eyes. She enveloped people in a loving gaze, a visual embrace that not only helped her feel what others were experiencing but also gave those around her the sense that she was right there with them, that she was sharing what they were going through, that here was another human being who saw them, understood them and made them feel seen. And she maintained this capacious, loving gaze even as the terror, callousness, and despair swirled around her. As Woodhouse puts it, “She was determined not to be numbed by the cruelty but to go on seeing.” https://comment.org/the-feminine-way-to-wisdom/?utm_source=pocket_saves
It is easy when we see the world in despair, anger, pain, when we see people in need of food, shelter, love; it is easy to be overwhelmed, to feel the need to go numb, to put in headphones or put up barriers or retreat into mindless entertainment or relationships or substances, or to just not know what to do next.
Moses’ world was heavy. While this little bush was on fire and didn’t burn up, way over there, Moses’ world was on fire. His people were suffering and oppressed and crying out. And it was an overwhelming call to go do anything about it, but the first call was to pay attention, be here, all here. To come close, to ground and root feet, pay attention, to be open.
When Moses asks God’s name, it is: I AM.
It could mean a thousand things, but in many Jewish traditions is means. I am present. I am here. I AM.
It’s a heavy world. It’s a world on fire. And if we focus on the big fires we will miss the call to attention that is right in front of us. We will miss the chance to love our neighbors well, to offer kindness, to give generously, to pay attention.
On Sarah McLachlan’s 2004 album there is the song “World on Fire.” While Jars of Clay’s “Headphones” was a commentary on our desire to insulate ourselves from the pain and hurt of the world and each other, “World on Fire” is a lament, a plea, and a promise. The world is on fire, it’s more than I can handle, I’ll tap into the water, try to bring my share, I’ll try to bring more, more than I can handle, Bring it to the table, bring what I am able.
That is what we do when we come to this table. That is what we do when we come together as a community of faith. We see the world on fire and each of us brings what we can. And we live in the promise that we are not alone in this work, that the little bit of water for the fire, the little gift of time, talent, energy, and money are caring for the world.
That is what we celebrate on World Communion Sunday, that communities of faith around the world and down the block come to God’s table with what they have to care about the big fires. And we are given strength and courage to go into the world and notice the small places where God is in the face of someone in need, lonely, sad, thirsty, or hungry. To give us eyes to notice where someone needs community, love, compassion, generosity, or kindness. To offer a hand to help, a shoulder to lean on, an ear to listen.
This is your call, your blessing, your moment. This is a time to focus your attention on God and the things of God, to see the face and movement of God in your neighbors and strangers near and around the world. To notice, to pay attention, to be moved, to act, to care, to love. To see each person, and all of creation, to see them as they are, as valuable, as vital, as whole.
Blessing at the Burning Bush by Jan Richardson
You will have to decide
if you want this—
want the blessing
that comes to you
on an ordinary day
when you are minding
your own path,
bent on the task before you
that you have done
a hundred times,
You will have to choose
whether you will attend
to the signs,
whether you will open your eyes
to the searing light, the heat,
whether you will open
your ears, your heart
to the voice
that knows your name,
that tells you this place
where you stand—
this ground so familiar
and therefore unregarded—
is, in fact,
You will have to discern
whether you have
to rebuff the call,
to withstand the pull
of what blazes before you;
whether you will
hide your face,
will turn away
No path from here
could ever be
could ever become
unstrange to you
has been scorched
beyond all salving.
You will know your path
not by how it shines
but by how it burns
leaving you whole
as you go from here