Frederick Buechner: Pay Attention

Frederick Buechner
Pay Attention

The biblical faith says creation is of enormous importance because God created it. He made it, he sustains it, he speaks in it, he moves in it. He sent the Christ into it, who walked on it, who got sick from it, who ate on it, who wanted a job on it, who preached on it, who loved on it, who died on it. It is of enormous importance. Pay attention to it. It is crucial. Souls are lost and souls are saved in this world; therefore live, watch, pay attention to it as if your life depended on it because, of course, your life does depend upon it. It seems to me almost before the Bible says anything else, it is saying that—how important it is to be alive and to pay attention to being alive, pay attention to each other, pay attention to God as he moves and as he speaks. Pay attention to where life or God has tried to take you.

The prophets were also saying to pay attention, especially to history. Pay attention especially to what’s going on in the headlines, with Amos, for instance, thundering out, Pay attention to the way the rich exploit the poor, to the way there are people living off the fat of the land in air-conditioned bedrooms and more to eat than they can handle while there are other people who are starving to death, who are sleeping in the streets of New York and San Antonio and God knows where in bags and cardboard boxes. Pay attention to that, says Amos, because God is speaking a terrible word through that, of judgment and of wrath, and of hope, in a way. Or the prophet Isaiah, who says, Watch the foreign policy of the nation, read those headlines, the powers in the north are coming to punish Israel for her running off after foreign gods every chance she has, and so on.

These prophetic voices continue, of course, and sometimes history itself becomes prophetic. I remember watching those students holding demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and there was a period when the students were being gentle, and the soldiers were being gentle, nobody was shooting, and nobody was shouting, and something so precious was starting, was trying to happen. I thought I could hardly watch without tears in my eyes. And then, of course, the shooting did start, and the tanks rolled in, and the bodies fell, and some were arrested, and here history itself was saying, Pay attention to what’s happening because these are the prophetic words being spoken to you on your television screen about the kingdom at hand.

The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life

25 thoughts on “Frederick Buechner: Pay Attention

  1. I don’t think we generally appreciate the partnership nature of our relationship with God. Our side of it is fostered by attention. “Seek and you shall find, knock…”. “Take heed of my instruction ..”. “Let the meditation of my heart be acceptable…”. Without our active participation it goes flat. I once heard Colin Hay, lead singer of Men at Work, describe the songwriting process as a partnership with the Muse. He said it was a 50-50 deal. It required engagement and work on his part and it wasn’t simply a matter of laying down like a baby bird with its mouth open to accept the gift. Anyone who has engaged in dream analysis knows that with continued attention and journaling of dreams they become much more regular and available to consciousness. It is as though the unconscious realizes it is being respected and starts taking its cue from consciousness by making itself available in the partnership. I think God is much like our dreams and our music. As we attend in a forthright, deliberate and conscious way we begin to find Him in a more concrete way than we might ever have expected. Like Bruce Cockburn said we “kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight”. If we diligently seek….


  2. –> “Jesus judged many times but it was usually the religious establishment at the time”

    He does hammer bad religious leadership and unhealthy religion quite a bit. See Matthew 23 for a full chapter.

    But he ends his rant with, “How I longed for you to come to me.” (paraphrased)


  3. –> “IMO, the judgement prophesies were written after the fact as an attempt to make sense of national tragedy.”

    If so, who knew there was such a thing as Monday Morning Quarterbacking even back then!?


  4. Nowhere is it reported in the Gospels that the Father responded, “I’ll forgive them in a few minutes, my Son, after you’ve died…”


  5. That certainly is not true. Jesus judged many times but it was usually the religious establishment at the time


  6. “The days are coming,” declares the Sovereign Lord,
    “when I will send a famine through the land—
    not a famine of food or a thirst for water,
    but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.
    People will stagger from sea to sea
    and wander from north to east,
    searching for the word of the Lord,
    but they will not find it.

    (Amos 8:11-12)


  7. “God […] nowhere promised that he would be a universal moral policeman. […] In fact, when God actually showed up in Jesus, he resolutely refused to judge anyone. Far from being on the side of the police, he ended up being done in by the very forces of righteousness who were supposed to be his official representatives.”

    — Robert Farrar Capon, The Romance of the Word: One Man’s Love Affair with Theology


  8. Maybe the Almighty’s judgement comes in the form of just letting us reap our own consequences for our own evils.


  9. Quite tiring indeed. Well said, Rick. In order to pay attention (listen) we need to draw away from the noise sometimes.


  10. –> “God gives us the grace to assume that responsibility.”

    And grant us mercy when we fail, which we will undoubtedly do.


  11. –> “…pretty much every evangelical I knew had testimonies of times they had heard God’s voice or felt God’s presence or seen God work through them. But as evangelicalism has drifted farther and farther in the “culture war” direction, that sort of language has dropped out of our common lexicon.”

    Interesting observation. Yes, I think much of the evangelical “personal testimony” has changed into a less personal “God’s mad” at the world in general. But isn’t that kinda the point of the prophets, to point out when God is mad and why? Is that what Buechner is trying to tell us in these words, to pay attention to when God anger meter might be running a little high?

    –> “But you can see the toll of that loss in the rising tide of hopelessness and despair.”



  12. I counted at least ten “pay attention”s in those three paragraph. It leads me to believe not only is paying attention important, but also quite tiring… just as living life can be quite tiring, too. One grows weary of trying to pay attention all the time, of living life all the time. Especially in days when there’s such a racket going on that it’s hard to hear anything but noise.

    Jesus, grant us some rest from the noise. Help us pay attention to the important voices, YOUR voice. Help us not grow weary…


  13. God’s judgment might just be more subtle than we’d expect it to be – affecting the soul first rather than people’s temporal well-being.

    When I was growing up in the church, evangelicalism was all about a personal relationship with God – pretty much every evangelical I knew had testimonies of times they had heard God’s voice or felt God’s presence or seen God work through them. But as evangelicalism has drifted farther and farther in the “culture war” direction, that sort of language has dropped out of our common lexicon. In fact, I know conservative evangelicals who now dismiss any talk of personal experiences of God as “Pentecostal nonsense.”

    Human beings were made for intimate communion with God – nothing else is as valuable or fulfilling as that. And yet that connection to God is exactly what we lose when we turn aside to worship idols. The only reason people don’t feel that loss more acutely is because we rationalize and tell ourselves it was never real in the first place. But you can see the toll of that loss in the rising tide of hopelessness and despair.


  14. It would seem that God’s judgment is ever-present. If we measure ourselves by the greatest commandment at Matt 22:36-40, the Beatitudes, and how Jesus directs us in our relationships with others, it is our actions that judge us. God gives us the grace to assume that responsibility.


  15. I do not really discern a “moral arc” to history. Some things — things that are important — have gotten better, or provisionally better; other things that are important have not done so well, or have gotten worse. I believe God blesses things like the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, and the current struggle for racial justice in the U.S.; but I don’t know how to readily see his “judgment” in any of it — he seems mercifully patient in a way that I can’t square with the idea of judgment. In my clearer moments, when I’m not swept up in the tide of my own struggles and those of this world, I see God’s judgment expressed in the figure of Jesus on the cross, culminating in the words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”


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