June 25, 2020

Pay Attention

Lead Pastor

Lead Pastor

David Milroy


Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” – Jesus, Matthew 26:41

My experience is what I agree to attend to. – William James

Learning how to think . . . means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to . . . if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. – David Foster Wallace

It is Wednesday afternoon as I write this blog post. Technically I don’t have to finish it until Friday morning. That makes it difficult for me to write. When I hit a wall and am not sure how to articulate what I am thinking, it is uncomfortable and challenging. I seek solace in distraction. My phone, like a siren song to a sailor on the sea, calls to me to check my texts or look up the weather or check the latest news or my Facebook feed. This very tool with which I am writing, my laptop, seductively offers countless options to take my mind off of the task at hand. I could check email (again, for the 18th time today). I could see what’s been cooking over on Basecamp (a project management tool we use for different teams at church). I might look at the football recruiting websites to see if the Buckeyes landed another prospect. First Things and The Gospel Coalition have plenty of articles to peruse.

Like the number of demons harassing the man among the tombs in Mark 5, the choices are legion. To say we live in a distracted world is to say something oft-repeated and obvious. But it is also tremendous barrier to communion with God and neighbor (and child and friend).

William James was a 19th-century American philosopher and psychologist. One of the themes of his work was the exploration of what we decide to attend to, and why. When he wrote, “my experience is what I agree to attend to,” he meant that the aim of our lives is made up precisely of what we choose to pay attention to. Life is immensely complex. The only way to navigate it is to attend to certain things, and ignore the vast majority of other things. I cannot look at the number of pine trees that line the backyards of my street, count the number of cars that go by my house, examine every dog on the walking path, read every book in my home, check my messages every five minutes, and write this post. I must eliminate all of the rest of that information and focus on one thing. The sum total of what we choose to focus on, therefore, is what makes up our lives.

If this is true, we ought to take tremendous care in deciding what we pay attention to. We ought to pay attention to what we pay attention to.

If this is true, we ought to take tremendous care in deciding what we pay attention to. We ought to pay attention to what we pay attention to.

In his excellent and fascinating book The Attention Merchants, Tim Wu offers a history of what he calls the harvesting and selling of attention. From the penny papers in the late 1800’s all the way through radio and television in the 20th century to the screens in our pockets today, attention harvesting has been a potent means of raising piles of money. When we watch something (a clip on YouTube, a sit-com on TV, our social feed, a sporting event), in almost every case someone somewhere has paid for the rights to take your attention from whatever you were looking for and turn that attention to whatever they are selling. And these attention merchants are incredibly sophisticated. The result: not only do we have myriad ways to be distracted, but as we distract ourselves, attention merchants are with ruthless effectiveness luring us to further distract us from our distractions! No wonder it is so difficult to focus.

Consider one example: attending an Ohio State football game (an entertaining distraction!). It now takes longer to complete a college football game than any other sport, about 3.5 hours. The breaks are frequent and excruciating. And what are we doing as we sit in the stands waiting for 3 hours (the other 30 minutes, roughly, are the ones in which the game is actually played)? We are being sold innumerable goods and services through announcements, contests, and big-screen ads. According to one study, the ratio of ads to actual game play in a given football game is 3:1 (the ratio seems higher to me).

It is no wonder, in a world of constant competition to grab our attention, that Jesus tells us to be aware and to pay attention over and over: “Watch!” (Matthew 25:13), “Behold!” (Matthew 6:1), “Beware!” (Matthew 16:26), “Look!”(Matthew 6:26), “Pay attention!” (Matthew 4:24). These Greek words are variations on a theme – to take special notice of something, to be in a state of readiness, to carefully observe. These are calls by Jesus to be attentive to the work of God in the world, to the communion He offers us with Him, and to the subterranean sins and seductive temptations all around. But how can we notice these eternally important things when we are so inundated by so many various and addictive forms of attention capture? There is massive competition for our attention. If we are not aware of this, and if we do not fight the temptation to give in to our own whims to be distracted almost every waking moment, we are, in the words of David Foster Wallace, “totally hosed.” We end up walking through our days focused not on God and neighbor, but whatever grabs us in the moment. That is the great bane of technology we possess in our pockets.

Pay attention to what you pay attention to. Put down the phone and turn off the TV. Pray, in quiet and solitude, for 20 minutes. Play some games with your family. Go for a walk and talk with each other. Ask God for the self-control to regularly do these things instead of passively allowing your attention to be given to passing, unimportant things. And above all, heed the words of John the Baptizer: “Behold [pay attention!], the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). He is the One worth paying attention to.

Pastor David