He walks through fields of rough blue and yellow stubble, his right hand casually dropping specks from the bag he wears over one shoulder. His gaze, however, is directed away from his work. He looks forward, not focused on anything in particular. The sun blazes low in the sky. It is either sunrise or sunset, either the beginning or end of a long day of work. But what I can’t get over is his gaze. He doesn’t look back at the seeds or kneel down to plant them. His work looks almost careless. Already I can see two birds have noticed the opportunity, their black shapes a stark contrast with the impressionist rendering of soil ripe for planting. But he does not fend them off. He moves forward and throws seed behind. He’s not paying attention to the work. His attention is somewhere else.
This, of course, describes a well known Van Gogh painting called The Sower. My husband and I selected it to be the focal piece of art in our home because it depicts the work we do as a pastor’s family. As in the parable of the sower (Matthew 13), we are tasked with scattering the seed of God’s good news. But we’ve learned that it matters what we pay attention to as we do the work. Focus too much on the work itself, on the success or failure of the seeds we’ve planted, and we can be tempted to feel either pride or despair.
What we pay attention to matters because paying attention is a form of worship.
The act of paying attention is just that: it’s a payment. You are giving of yourself to an object. Matthew Crawford, in a 2015 opinion article for the New York Times, explains that “attention is a resource; a person only has so much of it.” Because our attention is a limited resource, our attention is valuable. Living in an age of commercialism, we can all see that our attention is valuable because of how many advertisers are spending big money to get a piece of our attention. They know if they can get our attention, they can direct our time and money. Attention is valuable because it is powerful enough to reorient us.
When David Foster Wallace concludes, with all his unchurched wisdom, that “There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships,” he reminds us that worship is the default setting of our hearts. But worship is a rather abstract word. For those in the church, we might understand worship as singing or bowing or other forms of intentional religious behavior. For those outside the church, worship might be associated with unfamiliar or archaic rituals. But we all live in an attention economy and understand what it means to pay attention. So instead of asking “What am I worshipping?” this year I am asking “What am I paying attention to?” How is my attention pulling me towards and away from the things I say that I want to prioritize?
Understanding the economics of attention enriches my reading of scripture. For years, I misunderstood the story about Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42. Jesus seems to condemn Martha for being busy about dinner preparations and applaud Mary for reveling in the presence of Christ. Once I had kids, my morning devotional time became increasingly interrupted by the needs of my children or my own need to sleep after a wearying night of caring for a baby. I felt I had missed my opportunity to imitate Mary in choosing what is better (Luke 10:42), and was instead stuck with the tedious work of feeding and tidying up for most of the day, like Martha. I always felt bad for Martha. I assume Jesus and Mary were going to eat the meal she was making and it felt a little unrealistic to expect her to “choose what is better” and ignore the dinner preparations. Given the choice, I’d prefer to sit at Jesus’ feet all afternoon and just have him multiply loaves and fishes to feed my kids when dinner time came. But so far, that’s never happened at our house.
Only recently have I come to appreciate that Martha was not condemned for her busyness, but for her distraction. She was “worried and upset about many things” (Luke 10:41). It is possible (though not easy or instinctual!) to simultaneously do the work of Martha while worshipping like Mary. I am learning to control my attention so that no matter what I am doing, I can “ work at it with all (my) heart, as working for the Lord” (Colossians 3:23). Martha is not scolded for her work but for the direction of her attention, which is revealed by her loaded question to Jesus: “Don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” (Luke 10:40). She is resenting the work she must do alone and her attention is focused on herself.
In recent years I’ve been tempted to conclude that my husband gets to “choose what is better” because he gets meditate on God’s word and study for huge swaths of time. He gets to be Mary; I’m stuck at home doing Martha’s work. But I’ve come to appreciate it is not what I’m doing that matters; it’s what I’m paying attention to while I work.
The actions of my day are almost non-negotiable. What I pay attention to, however, can change. I can pay attention to myself and take pride in how much I’ve achieved (or get discouraged by how pathetic my accomplishments will be at the end of the day.) I can focus on others, looking to impress or compete with their work. I can focus on my family, desperate for their approval of my work or frustrated at how little they contribute. One of the most beautiful things about being human is that we do not have to pay attention to that which is immediately in front of us. Our imaginations can soar while our hands are in dishwater.
During the ordinary actions of my day, I can set my heart on things above, where “Christ is seated at the right hand of God” (Col. 3:1). I can turn to the ordinary work of my life with my eyes fixed on Christ, determined to make it not about me, determined not to use my daily responsibilities as acts of self-promotion but willing to serve obediently as if each action were a labor of love, working as if working for the Lord himself, seeking his pleasure at my obedience and faithfulness and generosity and forgiveness.
I do not know what The Sower is looking at, but he reminds me that my attention doesn’t have to be on the task at hand. Knowing that my attention is not only valuable but also powerful enough, I try to work with the same casual effort, keeping my attention set on what is eternal and entrusting the harvest to God, who gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3:6).