By Ed Thompson
Are you paying attention? That question haunts me. Well, it doesn’t keep me up at night, but I keep coming back to it. It’s been almost a month since I returned from Baltimore, the site of this year’s Big Tent, our denomination’s biennial gathering, but I still find myself thinking about it. Are you paying attention?
The question was first raised early in the conference by staff of The Center, which is the mission arm of the Presbytery of Baltimore. (Their Big Tent welcome is below; click here to see the text version.) They partner mission groups with local congregations to bring about change. I suppose the projects these groups do are helpful, whether it’s painting homes or building ramps, leading Vacation Bible School or working in community gardens. Even more important, though, is what the groups can learn from being in Baltimore.
St. Louis, the site of last year’s General Assembly as well as Big Tent in 2017, is a complex city. Baltimore, which will be the site of next year’s General Assembly, is even more so. Race is certainly a part of it, maybe a big part of it. Class differences also figure in. Sometimes wealthy neighborhoods are situated almost right next to poorer neighborhoods.
Are you paying attention? Asking the question helps you focus on what you are seeing. In Baltimore, that means looking for whether the windows in the row houses have been boarded up, whether piles of garbage are lying around, whether there are flower beds in the window, little satellite dishes on the roofs, weeds growing in cracks in the sidewalk, among other things.
What would asking that question mean for us, for our churches, for our communities? Maybe we should notice whether there are sidewalks or not, whether the local Go-Mart or Kroger has signs posted in Spanish or Arabic or Korean. Maybe we should also notice whether there is a Kroger or any kind of grocery store in our neighborhood. What does that tell us?
Maybe asking that question means we should be noticing whether there are more children or more senior citizens near our church? Where is the nearest elementary school, the nearest nursing home, the nearest Wal-Mart, the nearest McDonald’s, the nearest Starbucks, the nearest pawn shop? What does that tell us?
We can also apply that question to the members of our church. Do we notice the bruises on the arms of our members? Are the bruises a sign that they’re falling more often or are they a sign that the person is being abused? Is their absence from worship a sign that they’re ill, a sign that they’re on vacation, or a sign that they’re upset?
From my own experience, I remember talking to my mother about whether she had seen the specialist that her doctor had referred her to. She kept putting that off, which I took as a sign that she didn’t want to spend the money or didn’t want to be bothered. To be honest, the thought crossed my mind that this was an indication of her stubbornness. (Not that the apple falls far from the tree.) In hindsight, it was probably an early sign of dementia. She didn’t want to drive to that specialist because she wasn’t sure that she’d be able to find their office or perhaps find her way back home if she did. That thought never occurred to me. I guess I wasn’t paying attention.
Maybe, more importantly, are we paying attention to God? Perhaps God is speaking in a “still, small voice,” perhaps in a recurring dream, or in ideas that do keep us up at night. We all have more than enough to keep us busy. We probably pay more attention to our calendar and our smartphone. Asking that question can challenge our priorities and jolt us out of our lethargy. Are you paying attention?