Barbara Brown Taylor Reminded Me to Pay Attention
By John Graham
October 8th, 2011
I have been reading with great interest a New York Times Best Selling book by Barbara Brown Taylor entitled, An Altar in the World(HarperOne, 2009). In her book Brown has chapters with titles like: “The Practice of Waking Up to God, The Practice of Living with Purpose, and the Practice of Being Present to God. One of her early chapters is entitled The Practice of Paying Attention.
Brown writes that as a child she learned from her father to pay attention. Her father dedicated time to teach her to carefully observe all sorts of things: like a book full of photographs from previous Life magazines, the golden glow on the horizon caused by a forest fire in the distance, and a shower of falling stars filling an August night sky. In these kinds of experiences Brown’s dad taught her “that reverence was the proper attitude of a small and curious human being in a vast and fascinating world of experience” (p. 19).
Her musing caused me to ponder how truly important it is to pay attention and observe with a holy reverence that which is before us. Otherwise, we don’t even know what we are missing. Paying attention is a discipline that bears much fruit.
Years ago, when I was training to be a plastic surgeon under Ralph Millard, M.D. in Miami, he taught us to observe our patients with great care, take photographs, make drawings, study what had been tried by others in the past, make plans and always have a back-up plan, as well. Millard said that a brick layer has to take care of his bricks, and the tissue we were operating on was far more precious than bricks. He helped me to observe, pay attention, take nothing for granted, and leave no stone unturned.
It is interesting to me that we have to be taught the practice of paying attention, of holy reverence. Otherwise, we can go passively through life observing little. Yet, all that comes to us in life is a gift, a treasure. For, in the small things of life we find God incognito. I do not say this in jest; I mean this deeply. It has been my repeated experience.
Early in my spiritual walk I learned that God was a God of small, unimpressive things. When I expected a dozen people for a Bible study and I was the only one who came, that was the day God spoke to my heart and called me to be a plastic surgeon. It changed my life. This has happened so often over the years, that when only a few people show up for a meeting, I immediately become alert and look for God to speak in a surprising, unexpected way. And, God almost always does.
My favorite pastime is Photography. Taking pictures with my digital camera causes me to pay attention, observe a person or thing from several perspectives, not rush and leave, but linger looking for exactly the right angle, the right lightning, the right action. Later, back home, I look at the pictures and ponder what I saw that made me want to take a picture. I then choose which pictures to modify with Photoshop before printing. Selecting the proper matt and frame for the print is important, too. And, finally, where I hang the picture matters, as well. Photography is a discipline that has helped me observe and pay attention. It doesn’t just happen but being alert, we can make it happen.
Life in all its diversity and complexity is a gift and I am glad Barbara Brown Taylor reminded me it is an attitude of reverence, a holy discipline. For in the small, insignificant things, those easily missed, I have often found God.