January 3, 2017

"Much closer attention"

“We must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it.” (Hebrews 2:1)

A Christian, just like anyone else, can become distracted, drowsy, even bored. Sad to say, we can even slip into these ruts when it comes to our attention to the word of God. Some of our lapses, no doubt, are related to physical weaknesses (sometimes self-inflicted, sometimes not). Some distraction also has to do with the ever shortening attention spans that modern technology daily ingrains in us. And a good bit of our spiritual inattentiveness can have to do, alas, with the state of our souls. But we must fight against every sort of weakness and distraction that would keep us from really hearing the word of God, and thus drifting from it (Hebrews 2:1)! “We must pay much closer attention to what we have heard” and to what we are hearing! And so, in the lines below, allow me to make a few practical suggestions as to how we can do so (especially as it relates to hearing God’s word preached) – whether our weaknesses be physical, spiritual, or related to the modern lack of attention span.

1. Get adequate rest. Someone has said that a good Sunday begins on Saturday night. How true! It is very difficult to pay careful attention in the morning when you have stayed up too late the previous night. So know your body. Figure out how much sleep you need. And go to bed on Saturday night well in time to receive it! Your body will thank you on Sunday morning, and your soul will do so throughout all eternity!

2. Avoid being a distraction. We’ve all been there – coming to after about 20-30 seconds, and realizing we have lost track of what the preacher was talking about. Because our eyes were following someone who got up and took a bathroom break, or because of a child (maybe even the preachers’ kid!) being rambunctious, or because of someone nearby fidgeting with a cell phone, or nodding off. And of course, we could all stand to force ourselves to focus, even in spite of these things. But we can also do one another a favor by doing all we can to set ourselves up to be unobtrusive during the service. Some distractions are minor, of course. And others can’t be helped – there are bathroom emergencies, and surprises with the children, and other hiccups that can’t be avoided (and so don't feel guilty when they happen!). But if we can go to the bathroom before the service, and quickly take our children out when they begin to be a distraction (and sit near the back if we think they might be), and keep ourselves from fidgeting, and so on … we can, in many instances, avoid unnecessary distractions, and help those around us “pay much closer attention.”

3. Cultivate a lengthening attention span. One reason some of us may struggle to follow a sermon is not always because the preacher is too long, but because our attention spans are too short – not by nature, but by cultivation. We spend a lot of time watching TV, which breaks every 8 minutes; and maybe even more time staring at tablets and phones, whose screens we can flip, change, and refresh every few seconds (count me as guilty here, too). And so we often have more difficulty than our forebears following words (as opposed to pictures). It can be challenging for us to follow that which lasts more than a few minutes, and does not come with moving pictures.*  But if we are to hear the word of God, we must be able to give attention to an extended series of words! For “faith comes from hearing” (Romans 10:17). And thus we must cultivate longer attention spans … and the ability to hear and think and stay focused even without pictures! And so I charge you: turn off the television. Curtail your time on tablets and phones. And increase the time you spend in books (which use the same medium as the book) and in face-to-face conversation with real people. Learn to listen, and to focus on words in the day-to-day, and you’ll be helped to do it, with matters of the soul at stake, on the Lord’s Day.

4. Cultivate an anticipation for Sunday meeting. I wonder if some our distractedness in worship might have its root in a low view of the Lord’s Day itself. Are Sunday services merely one of many 2-3 hour time blocks that we look forward to in the week? Or is our time together around the word the centerpiece and fulcrum of the entire week’s rhythm? Is your weekly rhythm built around the Lord’s Day, or is the Lord’s Day just one piece of the puzzle? To put it simply: Is Sunday the most important day of the week to you? And are Sunday services the most vital event? Your answer will go a long way toward determining if you are really eager to be in the worship, and eager for the spiritual meal that will be served to you there. For if Sunday meeting is the high point of the week, attention will much more easily follow!

5. Pray for the preaching. If a survey was taken of your church, what would the percentage of people be who actually pray for the preacher and the preaching each and every week? More directly, what would you have to answer to such a question? Iain Murray has said that it is not only true that preachers make congregations, but also that the congregation makes the preacher in the way that they pray for and support his ministry of the word! And so, if you’re having trouble staying with the preacher on Sundays (and even if you are not!), pray for him and his preaching each and every week – for the Holy Spirit’s power in his heart, in his preparation, in the actual preaching moment, and in the hearts of his hearers! And, as you pray (and as God answers!), it will come about both that the preacher himself will do a better job, and that you (the hearer) will be more invested in (and thus more attentive to) what he is bringing forth out of God’s book!

“We must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it.” And these have been just a few practical ways in which we may go about it. May they prove a blessing to you.

*Read Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death for more on this phenomenon. My observations on this subject are always indebted to Postman’s excellent analysis!

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