Pay Attention: Living in the Present Tense

By Steagald, Thomas R. | The Christian Century, June 15, 2010 | Go to article overview

Pay Attention: Living in the Present Tense


Steagald, Thomas R., The Christian Century


WHEN OUR United Methodist Annual Conference urged pastors to create covenant peer groups as a way to maintain connection, seven of my colleagues and I agreed to meet every other week for a few hours of prayer and conversation, mutual accountability and "resourcing." It seemed appropriate when one of our meetings was scheduled for the Feast of St. Benedict; after all, what we are doing feels a little bit monastic. It seemed inappropriate, however, when in the middle of our religious conversation a pastor pulled out a BlackBerry and checked for messages.

I was angry and thought back to a similar interruption a few evenings earlier. My wife was planning to leave town for several days and suggested that we meet for dinner before she left. I canceled a meeting and drove some distance to meet her at the only time she was available. We had been at the restaurant for maybe 15 minutes when her BlackBerry buzzed and she reached for it saying, "Do you mind if I take this call?"

"No," I lied. As soon as she began speaking on the phone she was gone--except geographically, which she was the next day anyway. She never really came back to our table, our meal or our conversation. I'm not suggesting that the call wasn't important. But I received the clear message that something or someone was more important to her in that moment than I was. Yes, I consented to her taking the call and therefore was complicit, but I am also certain that we would have lost the "moment" if I'd come out with "Yes, I mind!"

"Pay attention to me!" is what I wanted to say at the restaurant and in the meeting. I did say something like that to my friend, and later also to my wife, along with the honest confession that I knew I had treated her the same way on countless occasions.

We see it all the time. We're on our cell phones talking to someone other than those at the table with us. We're putting somebody on hold while we take another call. We are shuttled by device and distraction to somebody's subroutine. The message is always the same: whoever is calling needs my attention more than you do; whatever this call concerns, it is more important than the present conversation; whoever or whatever is "out there" is more interesting than this or you or now.

Throughout my years as a pastor, my wife and children have often accused me of giving my best attention and energy to others, whether parishioners or strangers, instead of to them. "We need you here!" they tell me regularly. In the past, those discussions and disagreements mostly concerned my clock or calendar, but lately the issue seems spiritual and even theological.

During Lent, I was part of another group of ministers who met at the basilica of Belmont Abbey College. The prior of the monastery there, Abbot Placid, joined our group and taught us that all Roman Catholic religious orders fall into one of two categories: apostolic or monastic. …

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