I suppose all of us have had the experience of speaking to someone and after a story or question expecting a reaction or an answer and instead getting a blank expression. After a moment of awkward silence the person might snap back to attention and embarrassingly apologize for “zoning out”. Sometimes it’s humorous but often it is insulting or feels downright rude. We like it when the people we’re speaking to give us their attention and stay present to us in the conversation.
This week I’m preparing some video lessons for a group that is exploring how to experience a more intimate, personal relationship with God. My role is to cast vision and discuss practices that can move people in that direction – or at least create space for the Holy Spirit to work in their lives. In my reflection and preparation I’ve been reminded of how important it is to maintain an attitude of attentiveness and to remain “present” and open to God throughout the day. There are so many ways he communicates to us; if we fail to remain “present”, we will miss it.
It can sometimes feel like life is too full or too busy to be able to hear God. We may feel like caring for children or writing reports – or whatever our busyness – crowds out God’s voice or gets in the way of really paying attention. I appreciate what Jean Stairs wrote in Listening for the Soul:
Becoming more conscious of God is not so much about seeking a mystical, out of this world or end of life’s road kind of religious experience, but rather developing a deeper awareness and appreciation of how our everyday experiences abound in the mystery and presence of God. The ordinary events of our experience should not be in the way or apart from the way to living in the presence of God, but the way to it (emphasis mine).
God wants to meet us in our every-day life. He has promised he is with us always (Matthew 28:20) and will never leave nor forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). There is nowhere we can go that he isn’t right there with us (Psalm 139:7-12). While there is great value in taking time away from normal life activities to seek after God, we usually can’t do that very often. We can start the day with time in God’s word and in prayer. We can take time daily to spend in silence and solitude. But we can also learn to stay present throughout the day to God and open to his breaking into our lives.
In our relationship with God, what does it mean to “be present” to him? How can we live in a posture of “being present” to him? The following are thoughts that are mostly not original with me, but I cannot find where I’ve collected them over the years!
- Staying in the moment – we have a tendency to rush through life, moving from one activity to the next or even thinking ahead to what’s coming instead of being full present in the “now”. We need to learn to be fully where we are in the moment – present to others and to the task at hand. Certainly there are times when we are doing things that this is not needed, but too often we multitask or check out when we need to stay present in the moment.
- Really seeing things – not looking through them (this goes for people too!). We have a tendency to make assumptions or to feel like we already know where things are going. This is closely connected to staying in the moment. It encourages us to slow down and to be aware of what is rather than making assumptions. Rather than forming our response or moving onto the next thing, we need to pay attention. I am often tempted to do this when reading Bible passages that are familiar. I know what it says, but if I check out I may miss how God wants to speak through the verses to me in my life situation today. In the same way, if I assume I know where a conversation is going, I dishonor the other person and may miss important information. In my relationship with God I may miss something he wants me to see or experience or hear.
- Looking at the ordinary with fresh eyes – Have you ever stopped to think how amazing it is that you can pick up a ball and throw it and have it go (more or less) where you aim? Or that you can mix certain ingredients that alone taste horrible but together are delicious? There is so much around that if we were to stop and really pay attention to it, we might be amazed! Barbara Brown Taylor has written, ““Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.” I often find myself captivated by a smile or the way the wind blows across a field or the way a good author phrases the most common things in poetic beauty. How might God want to speak to us if we would pause to look at the ordinary and mundane with an openness to seeing it afresh?
- Being available to God – If God did speak to me or was to do something that was obviously him around me, are would I obey? Would I slow down to respond? I believe he is constantly speaking to us in a myriad of ways (consider Psalm 19 for example), but most of us have not learned to be available to listen or respond. We may be willing to obey should he speak, but we don’t really believe he will speak. We need to intentionally make ourselves available to him all the time.
- Living in a state of awareness – This can be difficult in many ways. But, as we practice and establish rhythms in our life that help us maintain a posture of receptivity, it can become reality. Last week I was talking to a good friend and we were overwhelmed by how God breaks through the mundane to show glimpses of himself when we walk with a conscious awareness of his presence. We don’t always “feel” his presence, but like the way a certain car we are interested in buying suddenly starts appearing all around us all the time, when we cultivate that awareness, we see him all the time.
- Living in expectancy – Most of us resign ourselves to the thought that we just aren’t that spiritual or just not worthy of God’s speaking to us. But when we come to the realization that He is speaking to us and we are worthy of such intimacy and begin to live in expectancy, we will begin to notice his presence all around us in ways we never had before.
- Living in trust – More and more we need to learn to let go of the need to control so much of our lives. We need to come to a place of trust. As we discover God’s loving presence with us all the time and in so many different ways, we can begin to truly walk moment-by-moment in faith that God will guide us and walk with us in all of life’s experiences and circumstances.
Take time to reflect on your experience. When do you sense God most intimately in your life?
Has there been a time when God showed up or broke in and you were surprised? Why was it surprising?
Is there any way you sense God inviting you to be more intentional to be present to him in your daily life? In what ways? What will you do about it?
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:8-12)
The savior of the world is being born. Angels are ready to make the announcement. Magi are already beginning their trek across hostile lands. Who will be the first to hear the good news? Who will be the Messiah’s first visitors? The Chief Priest? The Pharisees and Sadducees? King Herod?
Shepherds. No good, dirty, lying, unclean shepherds. They were considered the dregs of society. They weren’t trusted. They weren’t even allowed to testify in a court of law.
And God chose them. God chose them to be the first ones to hear the announcement of “good news of great joy that will be for all people.” It wasn’t the religious elite or the high and mighty. It wasn’t anyone we might expect. Shepherds.
Why? Why would God “waste” such good news on people so…despised, outcast, marginalized, disliked?
Maybe they had time and were willing to listen. With all the hustle and bustle of the census; with all the tensions of the Roman Empire; with all the religious duties to perform…maybe they were the ones who were available. Maybe they would listen.
And more than just listen, they responded. Remember when the Magi came to see King Herod and he called the religious people to find out where the Messiah was to be born, not one of them went to Bethlehem to check things out…not one! But after the lowly shepherds heard the angel army proclaim the original “Hallelujah Chorus”, we read:
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. (Luke 2:15-20)
The shepherds went to see if what the angels said was true. They spread the word about the child to everyone who would listen. Many were amazed but did they go? Did they check things out? We don’t know. But the shepherds went back to the fields glorifying and praising God because everything was just like the angels said.
I think there might be a second reason God chose to reveal the Messiah to lowly shepherds. Our King is also a Shepherd…and a lamb. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep (John 10:11). And he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the whole world (John 1:29).
Despite their lowly status, God identifies the Messiah with shepherds and sheep throughout the Scriptures. Jesus, 6 who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:6-8).
Isaiah 40:11 – He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.
Ezekiel 34:23-24 – I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. I the LORD will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the LORD have spoken.
Isaiah 53:5-7 – He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.
Mark 2:17 – Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Jesus, the Messiah, the Savior born to us that first Christmas day in Bethlehem – he came for the sick and the sinners, not those who think they’re healthy and righteous. He came gently, as a shepherd tending his flock. He laid down his life for his sheep. He became the Lamb who takes away sin.
From the beginning of Jesus’ earthly life, God makes it clear that everything will be turned upside down. Nothing will be as it was expected. He doesn’t come to establish an earthly kingdom or to overthrow an earthly government. He comes and invites people – all people – to enter into God’s Kingdom…not of this world; now but not yet; inaugurated in his first coming and to be fully consummated at his second.
But it all began with shepherds. They were available. They listened. They responded.
This Christmas, what will you do?