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Reflections | Dr. Leighton Ford (Mentoring)

Random Thoughts on Love and Attention

June 23, 2014

During Holy Week
Leighton Ford

April 12, 2004

A friend who knew how full this past Holy Week was, asked me “How is your writing on attentiveness coming along? I have been wondering what was forming in your mind.”

I have made a commitment to write some every day, so my friend’s question brought a touch of guilt! I had not done much writing at all –for a very good reason: our 20-month old granddaughter Anabel came to stay with us for three nights and days.

So my twinge of conscience was relieved when I realized that although I had not written much, I was trying to practice attentiveness all week (or, practicing without trying!) And perhaps that’s what I needed most.

What was forming in my mind again was the close bond between love and attentiveness.

1. Palm Sunday

The service at our church was one of the most meaningful I have experienced. It began with the faintest sound of bells, coming as from a long way off. I could not tell where they were coming from and had to strain to hear them. In the silence they grew a bit louder, as if the shaking was more vigorous. Where were they? Without twisting around I could only guess: in the balcony? outside?

Stealthily then the volume picked up a little, a bit more. The sounds were coming closer .. and closer. It was I realized the first movement of the processional up the aisle

Words came clear to my listening mind: “He is coming! He is coming!”

I slipped then into a boyhood mode, back to parades down King Street in my Canadian hometown during World War II. In my mind I was hearing the high wailing skirl of the kiltie band bagpipes from blocks away, sounding at first as if they were coming from a far Scottish glen, then drawing nearer, followed by the deep brass and drums. And finally one of my pals would cry: “There they are! They’re coming! Look! They’re coming!”

Was it like that on that day long ago in Jerusalem? Did the children shout “He’s coming”?

The procession was led by an older man carrying a rough-hewn cross, followed by the young bell-ringers and scores and scores of little children pouring down the aisle, more children than I knew our old church had birthed and baptized, tickling those at the ends of the pews with their palm branches. Then came the Bible -carrying family, the choir all in white, the ministers.

I seemed through the bells to hear over and over,

“He is coming. He is coming. He is coming.”

Our minister told the story of Holy Week so simply and powerfully that I was moved to tears. It was a profound entry into my soul.

I lifted up the gates of my heart, so the King of glory might come in. I was ready to hear the sound of his feet.

2. Anabel

She was coming, too, our 20-month old granddaughter, she of the full smiling lips and blue eyes and golden hair who lives so far away that her coming is a rare and to be coveted thing. The sound of her small feet was non-stop!

Anabel has not changed since she was here last Christmas. She is as much a human “doing” as a human “being”, with three modes of life: eat, sleep, move! She is our human nuclear reactor, source of all energy, born with the genes of perpetual motion.

With wide-eyes and rapid feet she pays attention to everything all the time. But not to any one thing for very long! It was her first time to stay with us without her parents, and she made the best of it! There was no loose object she did not handle, no telephone she did not put by her ear (and sometimes would have one held to each year!) She is interested in everything and held by nothing!

Paying attention is not a choice when Anabel is around. Constant attention, both fpr our sake and hers, is our own urgent homeland security … as vital as any airport scanner! I took her out to watch me do a springtime clean-and-fill on our backyard fountain. “Just a sec,” I told her as I raced inside to hit the switch that would start the water flowing. Fifteen seconds elapsed, twenty at the most. By the time I rushed back already she had one foot (sock and shoe and all) plunged in the fountain and the other on the way!

She loves being out of doors, especially the schoolyard where children play at recess behind our house. Give her one swift glimpse of them with a ball – “Ball! Ball!” she cries and is gone before “gagee” can blink! Her legs are like furious pistons. I followed and chased her for an hour that first morning, feeling like a tall giraffe trying to track a small rabbit that changes directions with every jump.

It’s obvious to me that she will be an athlete, probably a star basketball player, seeing her beg the school kids to give her the ball, aiming as she had seen them do with a steady eye at the rim hovering sky-high over her head and releasing the ball toward the basket. Alas! She has not yet learned to let the ball go up! But no matter: on to the swings, the slides, the nature paths in the woods. She slowed only once to accept the hand of a little black girl who was sad because no one wanted to play with her. Anabel and she adopted each other for the rest of recess, and instantly were fast friends.

Time to go back home? Across the field? No way. Anabel is set on being an outdoors girl and will come home only one of two ways: screaming and kicking in our arms, or being subtly guided by my kicking a blue ball slightly ahead of her in the general direction of home, where finally we can watch her in relative peace.

My one small concern is that the looting instinct may have surfaced in her early. When we rolled her home in her stroller, our legs having given out, in the basket at the back of the stroller were a pair of yellow and a blue ball she had lifted from the schoolyard. I don’t know whether this child felon is part of a gang, but I have not yet reported her actions to security!

Not everyone is relieved when we get her home. Our royal cat named Butternut does not take kindly to strangers who move into his house, even small ones. Butternut does pay close attention to Anabel. He fixes his baleful yellow-eyed stare on her, stays well out of her reach, and will not come inside even to eat while she is around.

A twenty-month-old human “doing” demands constant attention, and keeping up takes all our energy. “We are growing older by the minute,” I groaned to a friend who asked how the visit was going, and who answered with manufactured sympathy, “I understand. My father used to say he wanted so much to see his grandchildren. For fifteen minutes.”

Now she is gone, back to Virginia. The cat is at peace; we are at rest; the children in the schoolyard play without annoying small presences under their feet; the fountain runs undisturbed by foreign objects; the floor is cleared of all the toys. And the wonderful calm lets us sit quietly, breathe deeply, and muse, “Why do we miss her so much!”

Because of love, of course, attentive love. As the time came for her to leave I drove her to meet our son Kevin, Wednesday morning. He had dropped her off while he went to do business in a nearby city, and now was picking her up for the ride back home to South Riding, Virginia, six and a half hours away.

All the way to the meeting point she sang from my back seat: “Gagee, Da-dee, Ga-gee, Da-dee.” Finally, she was strapped in her car seat ready to go, the blue and yellow balls next to hear, before I shut her door she looked at me with the most woeful look in her eyes that seemed to say, “Gagee, aren’t you coming?”

Attentive love exacts its cost, as it offers its gift. Watching them drive off I prayed for a safe journey and remembered how I had guided her from the woods by the school back to home. A prayer formed in me:

“Lord, give me the same childlike delight, the same open spirit to all that is new and beautiful, and guide me with your wise hand in the right paths.”

Her non-stop action was a mirror of my own busy mind, always wanting to see new and desirable things in so many places, learning that finding is easier than letting go. I indulge my own very adult whims, just as we wanted to let her childish wonder have full rein – to let her pick up every ball, try to take the football from the small boy across the street, run after every dog in the neighborhood, handle every curious object in the house. Yet we also wanted to be just wise enough and just attentive enough to keep her speeding feet from carrying her into a dangerous street, to guide her away from disasters large or small.

Does God pay as close attention to me as I do to Anabel? Closer? Even when I do not realize the Taller and Wiser and Quicker one is close and on my own trail?

We got little else done during those three days. I did no writing. Watching was both delight and duty. It was not, however, a burden. Love gave vision to our eyes, wings to our feet, opened our ears wide, and brought our hearts to full attention.

3. Friendship

By the same token, does love not make us attentive to friends as it does to family?

Friends, wrote Augustine, come into our lives by a kind of divine lottery. As C.S. Lewis put it:

For the Christian, there are, strictly speaking, no chances. Christ, who said to the
disciples, “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you” can truly say to every
group of Christian friends, “You have not chosen one another but I have chosen you
for one another!” The friendship is not a reward for our discrimination and good taste
in finding one another out. It is the instrument by which God reveals to each the beauty
of all the others”

Without this divine lottery, this God-given instrument of vision, how much I would miss out on!

During Lent, for the past several years, in addition to giving up some small indulgences, I have added a positive practice to my Lenten disciplines At the suggestion of my spiritual director and friend, David, I have each year written “Lenten letters” to several friends from years past, those I do not see much any more.

This Lent I wrote to Allen, who was a wise counselor in the days when I was a fledgling preacher. I thanked him for encouraging me once, when it seemed we would fall way behind financially on a project, saying, “Leighton, it’s only money.” He also was brave enough to hand carry a letter to my own birth father. “I was scared!” he later told me. But he did it! Now he is old and hardly able to write, like another friend, Ted Engstrom, an outstanding Christian leader who gave me the most astute advice when I was launching my own ministry organization.

“Ted,” I said, last Saturday, as I called him at his home in California, “I am calling just to say thanks for being my friend, and the good counsel you gave me. Everyone thinks they are your special friend. You have a gift of making us feel that way.”

I wanted to pay attention to Allen, and to Ted, for their sakes, to let them know they are not forgotten, which is also why I called my former faithful secretary whose short-term memory is fading but whose long-term loyalty never lags.

But I also called for my sake. Paying attention to them did me good. It made me realize how blessed I truly am.

Have you valued the kind of focused attention the good and deep friends provoke in our lives?

Have you sat with a friend who is very much attuned to birds and flowers, to sky and trees, and through whose eyes and ears you notice what otherwise you would have missed? I have. Having been so absorbed in books throughout my life I have often not carefully attended to the book of nature.

Would I have seen that spring flower just breaking through the surface? Stopped in front of VanGogh’s Iris painting long enough to let tears come? Would I have done any of these without friends who led my eyes and mind where I had not been before?

Without the questions of true “anamcharas” – that beautiful word the ancient Celts used to describe their soul friends – I might never have unburied places of the heart that I have tramped by or on for years.

“What were your darknesses?” asked one of these friends about some of life’s harder times. “And what did you learn of God in them?”

“What images of God have guided your life across the years?” asked another, and that question sent me back across the years and through the covered over tells of my heart and the truths of my Bible, reminding me of grace received and encouraging me of hope to come.

Friends. Attentive friends. Friends who care enough to ask how you are and stay as long as it takes to get a true and honest answer. I would have missed some of the most profound and transforming heart-storming times of my life if friends had not asked – and made me pay attention.

4. Maundy Thursday

This was the first Holy Week in many years that we have stayed home. For over thirty years our family went away every Easter to some place where I had been asked to preach at a Good Friday service, or an Easter sunrise gathering. This year we stayed home.

Because of these travels I have attended few Maundy Thursday services, perhaps one or two in a lifetime. It was not part of our church practices when I was growing up, nor generally in the evangelical world in which my religious life was formed. It was judged, perhaps, as too “catholic” or too formal.

This Holy Week we went with anticipation to the Maundy Thursday service at our large and rather formal Presbyterian church, knowing it would be a time of silence, solemnity, darkness.

I looked around at the very full sanctuary, and was impressed with how many young couples were seated around me. Otherwise I sat alone, in the quiet, my wife Jeanie seated toward the front with the other elders who would serve communion.

All parts of that evening spoke to my ready heart. The meditative silence. The slow procession with the cross. Certain moments especially entered into me, and I into them.

The first came early in the service as we prepared to take the bread and wine of Christ by intinction, waiting our turn to the front, to receive and return.

In my pew I thought of friends who would be taking part in other services, at the same time, and sent a silent prayer toward them. Then in the darkness and the silence my mind began both to focus and soar. This was the communion of the saints, and through Christ and in Christ we were being joined to all believers in all times and places. This was a moment, to use Charles William’s term, of “co-inherence”, of experiencing here and now a fore-glimpse of the eternal moment when all time, past, present and future would meet in him, when all things in heaven and earth would be reconciled in the One through whose death God will make all things new.

My body was totally still. My mind was traveling light years and far continents. All the way to heaven’s gate where Sandy and Jack, and Armin and Festo have entered into the eternal feast! Down to Norman in Melbourne, up to Ken in Vancouver, over to Roland in Marburg, and then to John and Alison in Australia whose daughter is with the others in heaven … on and on and on my mind soared as if through the stars of the sky and the attendance of communions past … I prayed for Kirsti and the dear poetic preacher Bishop Hakon in Norway …Michael in South Africa and Caio whose son was just killed in Brazil. My prayer thoughts went to soul mates – Ann and Anne in California and Houston. To Jim in Virginia and MaryKate in Oregon who have walked dark roads with me.

I was not consciously willing my thoughts toward any of them. It was as if Elijah’s chariots of fire had suddenly shown up to take me up and carry me through space and time. I could have stayed in the darkness and quiet all night and never stopped remembering. And as each face came to me to say: Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Back to the sanctuary. As time came to move forward I could see my wife Jeanie handing the elements to the participants, and gave thanks for the loving attention she has given to me for so many years. I myself partook with as deep a sense as ever in my life of the body of Christ in which we co-inhere with all who are his.

And at what cost. The last words of Jesus were read by laypeople by the light of a small candle. The choir’s anthems were each one a commentary on one of his final words. At every word one of the seven candles in the chancel was snuffed out. With the dimming I could sense the final slipping down of the life pulse of our loving and loved Lord on that cross. It was his ground zero. It was our ground of every new thing.

Was ever attention paid as he paid ? Hanging on a cross, despised and rejected, suffering unimaginable physical and mental (and spiritual) pain, how could he pay attention to anything except his own unutterable agony? Yet he looks at his tormentors and prays, “Father, forgive them.” He attends to his mother with her own grief and gives her over to the care of John: “Mother, behold your son.” And at the end he says to the thief by his side who asks Jesus to remember him: “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

Yet at the end the one who forgot none felt he was forgotten by all, including his Father.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Who paid attention to him?

Darkness crept through the church and into my soul.

The Christ candle was removed from the sanctuary. I did not see it go.

Light had been emptied. Sound was complete. The work was finished.

Have I ever sat so long, in such darkness? So alone and yet abiding with so many?

How long it seemed we stayed so still before one small sign of hope became visible. The Christ candle returned, slowly, ever so slowly, a girl in white, gently swaying, holding it so carefully, slowly, slowly returning it to its place.

The minister commended to us the new commandment of love.

He asked, whatever we would be doing on Friday, that from nine in the morning to three in the afternoon we remember him, remember that he was dying.

We went out. There were no words. It was night.

5. Good Friday.

When I was growing up in Canada Good Friday was a day when everything stopped. Businesses were closed between noon and three. Schools were out.

At three o’clock we waited for the sky to get dark. It often did.

Good Friday now in Charlotte is like most other days. Nordstroms shining new department store is newly opened and shoppers packed the mall today. They had to hunt hard for parking spots.

It did not get dark at three. All day was glorious spring sunshine.

And I kept thinking:

He is dying. He is dying. He is dying

6. Saturday

We went, Jeanie and I and two friends, to see Mel Gibson’s The Passion.

We had been putting it off, I knowing I needed to go, realizing I did not want to.

We watched for two and a half hours, voyeurs of what must have to him seemed an eternity. Afterward we talked about it, analyzed it.

I wished we hadn’t.

There was really nothing more to say.

7. Easter

I woke early knowing I was to teach the adult classes at our church.

Easter morning was exactly what I had hoped for. Bright sun! The birds were raising their Easter hallejujahs.

Words came by pure instinct to my mouth:

“He is Alive!”

I thought back over Holy Week, to the requiem and the refrains of my heart.

“He is coming! He is coming! He is coming!”

The celebration of the One who comes in the name of the Lord.

“He is dying! He is dying! He is dying”.

The suffering of the One who gave himself up to the will of the Lord.

“He is living! He is living! He is living!”

The triumphant cry of those who have met the Risen Lord!

This morning I will tell the people at church of the two disciples, one named, the other not, who paid attention to a stranger on the road to Emmaus, and realized the Lord had found them.

While I tell them, I will be wishing I could somehow open not only my mouth but my very insides, the place where the coming, dying, living One has kindled again a heat and a blaze and a light, and a love that on Maundy Thursday night had brought tears to my eyes, so that I could read but not sing the final words of the last hymn:

O, make me Thine forever;
and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never
outlive my love for Thee.

What attention he paid to us, to me.

Were ever love and attention so brought together?

And how shall I pay attention to him?

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