At Velvet Ashes I’m leading a weekly discussion as we work our way through Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the WorldThe following was written for the chapter entitled The Practice of Paying Attention


Picture this, I read it in the quiet of my home thinking holy thoughts about paying attention to God at work, and before I could write this post, I traveled internationally. To say there is a world of difference between the version of how I WANT to be when I am at my best (i.e. sitting alone desiring and picturing myself to be this piece of calm floating through the world) versus when real people and situations get in the way of my idealized version of life, would have Jesus and the saints rolling on the ground in laughter.

Kind of like when I see a pre-schooler pitching a fit. At times it’s just so cute.

Pay attention on plane

Did anyone else smile as you read about Barbara laying with her dad and sister on a blanket looking at the night sky? Thinking, YES, yes, I love those magical moments when the curtain between here and eternity is lifted and we can peek underneath.

And then she shared about a more down to earth experience with her dad and learning to clean a gun. “This ritual, among many others, introduced me to the practices that nourish reverence in a human life: paying attention, taking care, respecting things that can kill you, making this passage from fear to awe.”  I marked this in the book thinking, Yes, yes, this is what paying attention looks like. Ritual. Reverence. I’m all in!

The practice of paying attention, however, “really does take time. Most of us move so quickly that our surroundings become no more than the blurred scenery we fly past on our way to somewhere else. We pay attention to the speedometer, the wristwatch, the cell phone, the list of things to do, all of which fee our illusion that life is manageable. Meanwhile, none of them meets the first criterion for reverence, which is to remind us that we are not gods.”

As the chapter went on she shared about outward visible signs pointing to inward and spiritual connections. And she wrote about those bird feathers “glancing off the windshield” as she drove, becoming a sign of where food comes from and the ways God provides.

We live in noisy, colorful worlds ourselves, don’t we? Potential connections can be made all around us. I’m all in when paying attention will lead me to star-filled moments or quiet insights. But we’ll also have bird feather moments.

I don’t know why, but of all I read in this chapter, it was those feathers that stuck with me as I traveled. Maybe because, let’s be honest, sure, traveling can be fun, but over the years its lost its glamor for me. Luggage and waiting and sitting and wondering who will be in my row and movies I don’t care about and custom lines, are part of the jig, right? A means to an end. Do I hear an Amen?

With those feathers floating in my mind, the meal consumed and the first movie over, I pulled out my eye mask, blew up my neck pillow and leaned my seat back.

“OH NO, this will not do. You put your seat up right now. My wife is working and this will never do. Put your seat up.”

Came into the gap between my seat and the row behind me. I was a bit taken a back by the commanding nature with which it came and turned to see the eye of an older gentleman who repeated the message. I tried to explain I was going to sleep and can’t sleep sitting up and that the lady in front of me was also leaned back.

By this point he had pushed the call button and summoned the flight attendant. (Side note, you guys, I am not that passenger! I am not the one who is obnoxious and gets beeped. What was happening?! How did it all turn tense so quickly?)

The flight attendant explained I had the right to lean my seat back and if they needed more space they could lean theirs back.  He handled it professionally, and I was impressed with his calm demeanor. I’ll spare you the details, but you can imagine how this sat with the man and his wife.

I closed my eyes and tried to sleep. He kept leaning forward and mumbling through the gap, “Some people are just so inconsiderate.” I wanted to mumble back, “Do you see the irony?!” but refrained.

Pay attention I am here.

This was a bird feather moment. I sat there, eye mask on, head resting on the neck pillow and prayed. I pictured them in their kitchen going over plans for their trip abroad and how this might have been a life long dream to visit a far off land. But they had never been on a plane this long and had not pictured or mentally prepared for the travel. I prayed for their trip to a land I love dearly and hoped they too would love her. I slipped in and out of sleep. I prayed and dosed and woke and prayed.

I wanted to be annoyed and I was a tiny bit. But mostly I paid attention and by paying attention I saw more of what was really going on.


How about you? What moments are you more drawn to pay attention to? What parts do you say, “I’m all IN!” and where would you rather turn your eyes and not pay attention?  Have you read this book?


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Leave A Comment

  1. Jenny November 18, 2014 at 6:54 am - Reply

    I was hoping this post was going to have this story in it! What do you mean traveling is not glamorous?!

  2. Mark Allman November 19, 2014 at 11:30 am - Reply

    To pay attention in this world does take a lot of effort. It is much easier to not. To react instead of act and think about it later. The tendency is if we pay attention is to only be concerned with our stuff. The real discipline comes when we extend our attention to those around us and to their needs. Difficult to do but very impactful.

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