The Spiritual Practice of Paying Attention
"I was unaware."
Those three words embedded in the story of Jacob and his stairway-from-heaven dream are frightening. And all too common, if we're honest!
Jacob is on a 550-mile journey from Beersheba to Haran. Why? Well, his destination is Haran mostly because his mother, Rebekah, was unimpressed with the potential daughter-in-law pool down in Beersheba. She had said to her husband, Isaac: "If Jacob takes a wife from among the women of this land, from Hittite women like these, my life will not be worth living." She wants her son to go back to their homeland and find someone from "their people" to marry.
But the real driving force of the journey is that Jacob is skedaddling out of Beersheba to escape the death threat of his twin brother, Esau. Likely you remember how Jacob had grabbed the birthright that belonged to his (ever so slightly) older twin brother, and how he had deceived his blind, aging father to steal Esau's blessing.
When Esau learns of the deception he says: "The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob." So off to Haran Jacob scoots!
Somewhere between the two points, Jacob stops for the night. I love that Genesis calls his resting spot "a certain place" (28:11). It wasn't a temple. Nor was it a cathedral or some destination for holy pilgrimages. It was just a nondescript bend in the road.
It could have been aisle three at the grocery store . . . or a familiar chair in the living room . . . or a well-worn path through the woods. But by the time the story is over—after Jacob dreams about a stairway from heaven to earth with angels ascending and descending and God standing above it blessing him—Jacob exclaims: "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven!"
It was what Celtic believers called "a thin place"—a spot so electric with the presence of God that it seems that heaven has crashed into earth.
And yet, despite that radiant glory, Jacob admits: "Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place, but I was unaware of it."
I was unaware.
Those words are chilling. They help explain why so many relationships suffer: friends take each other for granted; parents dutifully endure the chores of child-rearing and miss the child; teachers plow through their material and forget the joy of eager minds.
One of life's greatest skills—and for us, an act of spiritual discipline—is to be aware. To keep our eyes open. To listen carefully. To pay attention.
We're so busy, so easily distracted by cell phones, text messages, and crammed calendars that we miss what's right in front of us. (Think: how many times have you seen people together at a restaurant focused on some app rather than on the person two feet away?) We fall prey to the urgency of things that don't ultimately matter. We obsess on the new video clip while missing the glory of the one sitting next to us.
This story—like so many other stories of faith—begs us to pay attention. It reminds us that if we will but slow down and open our eyes we can observe the hand of God in the ordinary. The kitchen table with loved ones gathered around (and the TV off)? It's "the house of God"! The chair where you can contemplate the love of God? It's "heaven's gate"!
As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it: "Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars." She points to the way scripture itself encourages us to stay alert long enough to sense the presence of God:
People encounter God under shady oak trees, on riverbanks, at the tops of mountains, and in long stretches of barren wilderness. God shows up in whirlwinds, starry skies, burning bushes, and perfect strangers. When people want to know more about God, the son of God tells them to pay attention to the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, to women kneading bread and workers lining up for their pay. . . People can learn as much about the ways of God from business deals gone bad or sparrows falling to the ground as they can from reciting the books of the Bible in order. . . This is wonderful news. I do not have to choose between the Sermon on the Mount and the magnolia trees.
Today I want to slow down. I want to see my friends and to listen to my grandchildren. I want to inhale the glory of God's creation as I jog. I want to soak in the presence of the one who spoke to Jacob in a dream so long ago: "I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you."
I want to end the day by knowing that I was aware.
Mike Cope is the Director of Ministry Outreach at Pepperdine University. In addition to directing Harbor: the Pepperdine Bible Lectures since 2013, he works with church leaders, speaks across the country, and directs Pepperdine's "Sanctuary: Thriving in Ministry" grant from the Lilly Endowment.