Holy Conversation: Noticing

This post is one of a series** expanding on messages preached at Eastview Baptist in Spring 2014.

I was talking with some folk about their involvement in Live Below the Line, an annual anti-poverty campaign, in which participants commit to feed themselves on the equivalent of the extreme poverty line for five days. We were discussing how the discipline of limiting yourself to $2.25 a day for meals has opened up some interesting conversations. We noticed how naturally the theme led into talking about something deep. Its like the profound conversations a university friend has found herself having with other students about her thesis topic, steadfast love in the Old Testament. The other postgraduates  know little about the Hebrew religion, but they know something about love. And they don’t mind talking about it.

These conversations reminded me about Paul's advice to Christians in the first century (Colossians 4: 5 – 6): Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone. (NRSV) 
Or in the Message paraphrase:
Use your heads as you live and work among outsiders. Don’t miss a trick. Make the most of every opportunity. Be gracious in your speech. The goal is to bring out the best in others in a conversation, not put them down, not cut them out.
The same passage speaks of God "opening doors". Ravi Zacharias says we must learn to find the back door to people’s hearts because the front door is so heavily guarded. It’s that easier door we focussed on in our recent series of sermons revolving around sharing our faith, something most of us are not that good at. The first message noted "we are reluctant, nervous about being talking to strangers, or being put on the spot, and we need to find ways to do it more naturally and easily". That’s a challenging topic for me because I am a fully paid-up member of Cowards for Jesus!
So these posts are going to be about "holy conversations" – conversations that touch on spirituality, though not necessarily faith or religion. Conversations that don't aim towards a specific outcome, but meander around the deep stuff in ways that draw out values and dreams. I believe that when we talk about this stuff, God is in the midst. The post themes come from an excellent little book that I picked up last year when we were thinking about mission in our backyard, about the conviction that our bighearted God is already at work in the lives of our neighbours and workmates, and that he is calling us to participate in his mission. The book is called God Space by Doug Pollock, who works for an organisation supporting Christian athletes. Not my thing particularly, but this book has been captivating. Subtitled “build deeper relationships and  talk about the things that matter most”, Pollock’s book is aimed at helping Cowards for Jesus engage in conversation in natural and winsome ways.
Pollock’s first suggestion is called Noticing your Way In to spiritual conversations. Now my family will tell you I’m not renowned for my noticing skills. Plants die, cobwebs proliferate and trailers get reversed into when Viv’s around. One birthday I worked in my office at church for half an hour before I noticed the church administrator had tied balloons and streamers to my computer. So this is a good skill for me to work on. The ministry of noticing. Jesus noticed people. People like Zacchaeus and Levi. Sick people, needy people, lonely people. and when he saw them, his heart overflowed with compassion. Matthew tells us when Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were confused and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd...and he asked the disciples to pray for more workers to help (Matthew 9: 36).
And Paul was a noticer too - remember the statue in Athens, dedicated to an unknown god? Paul used it as the starting point for a spiritual conversation: "Men of Athens, I notice that you are very religious in every way, for as I was walking along I saw your many shrines. And one of your altars..." (Acts 17: 16 - 34).  So we are in good company if we learn to pay attention to what going on around us.

If you've seen the Awareness Test on YouTube, you'll know its easy to miss something you are not looking for. You watch some people playing basketball, and then answer a question you didn’t have in mind when you were watching. Most of us fail the test, because we weren’t paying attention to that other thing. When we do notice, it like having a special pair of glasses. Jesus glasses. The ability to see beyond appearances into the inner world. Another popular YouTube clip shows a young man who is exasperated by poor service. Something happens to change his perspective and he sees, with new eyes, the real needs of those he had despised. Paul likens this to having the mind of Christ; we understand these things, for we have the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2: 16) He also describes the eyes of our hearts being opened, so that from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view (2 Cor 5: 16).

“Noticing” says Doug Pollock “is  a prerequisite to caring about others, and serving them in tangible ways that smuggle the gospel into their hearts.” (GodSpace p38) He tells a number of stories about the ministry of noticing and how it can lead to caring and serving. Q Place, a web-based Ministry that picks up and runs with the whole theme of The Arts of Spiritual Conversation calls noticing "a relational act of kindness" (p6).

Many years ago as a young mum, I was going through some emotional ups and downs that often brought me to tears in the worship time at church. I remember feeling very lonely because it seemed no one noticed, or maybe they did, but they didn’t know how to respond. Nowadays I find that I notice when someone wipes their eyes or weeps in church, and if its appropriate, I make a connection with them. The “eyes of my heart’ have been opened to that pain. But I know God has has heaps more to teach me about noticing – and about how to respond. Sometimes it’s not appropriate to make a personal  connection -  but Pollock says that godspace is also created when we pray. In my experience, when you pray specifically for people, new opportunities seem to open up. Because people matter to God.

The art of noticing is unintimidating. It doesn’t require any memorising or presenting. It doesn’t even require courage. But if you start doing it, you’ll find it changes your heart.

To Chew Over: Try to notice something about three people who cross your path today. How does your new perspective change your response?

May the mind of Christ, my Saviour,
Live in me from day to day,
By His love and pow’r controlling
All I do and say.

May the Word of God dwell richly
In my heart from hour to hour,
So that all may see I triumph
Only through His pow’r.

May the peace of God my Father
Rule my life in everything,
That I may be calm to comfort
Sick and sorrowing.

May the love of Jesus fill me
As the waters fill the sea;
Him exalting, self abasing,
This is victory.

May I run the race before me,
Strong and brave to face the foe,
Looking only unto Jesus
As I onward go.

May His beauty rest upon me,
As I seek the lost to win,
And may they forget the channel,
Seeing only Him.
K B Wilkinson (public domain)

** See the second and third posts in this series....