Where Our Gaze Lands

We gathered around a glass enclosure at PetCo. My kids pressed their fingers and noses against the glass, trying to get a look at the entangled pile of ferrets napping in the corner. Some of the animals curled in upon themselves, while others were practically upside down—their mouths sleepily hanging open to show tiny, pointed teeth. I shuddered a bit.

“Oh, Mommy! Can we have one? Please?” my family begged in chorus. “They’re so cute.” 

Cute? Ferrets are too “rodent” for my taste. They make me think of a rat that got stretched like dough in a pasta maker. Sure, a ferret’s face resembles the more appealing sea otter, but the teeth, the little feet, and the beady eyes all bring me to emphatically decline my children’s requests.

“Mom, the sign says $39.99,” my first-born reasoned as he pulled out his wallet. “I almost have that much. If you could just…”

“No,” I interrupted.

My husband stepped in with a grin on his face.

“Give Mommy some time, guys,” he said. He turned to me with mischief in his eyes. “Do a little research. You’ll come around.”

I playfully punched him in the shoulder. This is an on-going joke between us. For as long as I can remember, I have loved research. When I dive into a subject, I become enthusiastic and nearly obsessed about my subject matter. I can become sympathetic to a cause after I’ve examined the complexity of the issues. I believe this is a good character trait—leading me to be well-informed and a person of compassion and empathy. However, it can also get a little silly with long, one-sided conversations at the dinner table about anything from urban chicken farming, to cellos, to childbirth. I admit that I dive in and try to drag my family with me.

When I allocate time to an idea, I am altering my perception of the world simply by placing my attention in a specific way.  You probably do it, too. We want to lose weight, so we dig around on the internet for solutions. We desire to change something in our relationships with our kids, so we pick up a parenting book. We’re hoping for a promotion at work, so we listen to the latest leadership podcast. Most of us have realized that when we learn more about something, we sharpen our attention toward that issue or object. We might not grab another doughnut because we just read about the downfall of simple carbs, for example. Most of us have also experienced the fading interest that comes shortly after a New Year’s resolution loses its sparkle. It’s easy to lose focus and hop to the next obsession. 

As a Christian, I know that my attention needs to be on the Lord, and my growth in faith is dependent on a steady diet of truth from God’s word and an influx of the Holy Spirit. Not unlike the weight-loss books and last year’s resolution, the knowledge and richness I gain from Scripture can fade if I am not deliberate about making time for study and prayer. I will drift back to the world and the sinful thoughts of my own heart if I do not return to the Bible with regularity and lean into the wisdom of the Holy Spirit.

Consider Matthew 6:21. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Aren’t time and attention two of the gifts (the treasures) God has given to us? We allocate these finite things in many ways through a lifetime. The world clamors for our attention. We are bombarded daily with messages that insist that we must focus on our bank account, our BMI, our wardrobe, our kids’ report cards, our grocery list, and our calendars. And on and on. 

Any Christian knows that the emotional high of being saved or coming to a new understanding of Christ does not last forever. Our hunger for God waxes and wanes over the years of our discipleship. This is common. Few of us will stay on the soaring cloud of first love. God knows the fickleness in our humanity, and he will, through his Holy Spirit, sustain us when new love fades and we are enticed by things, people, and ideas that he does not intend for us. He welcomes us back after we have strayed, even pursues us when we would rather flit from one worldly interest to another. (See the parable of the lost sheep in Matthew 18:12-14 and Luke 15:3-7.) But we can be wise in fixing our gaze upon our Savior.

God offers us instruction on how to avoid the temptations of the world. In Philippians 4:8, we read, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” God gives us discernment and his Spirit so that we can choose purity over vulgarity, beauty over ugliness, and honor over corruption. Without his intervention, we would not see the world for what it is, but with Scripture in our minds, we will see the world through a different lens. Again, God knows this. In Deuteronomy 8:10, God tells his children, “You shall therefore impress these words of mine on your heart and on your soul; and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontals on your forehead.” This is an instruction to keep God’s word ever present. 

When I am researching an issue, I have trouble thinking about anything else. I have lain in my bed long after I should have been asleep, unable to turn off thoughts about landfills, industrial farming, math curricula, and whether or not I could actually run a marathon. (Yes, my interests are varied.)

Imagine if my days included more time lingering over the Bible, resting in its promises and being stretched by its commands. Where, then, would my thoughts drift when I am troubled by an obligation or a looming deadline? How, then, would I react during a strained conversation with a colleague? Where would I turn when I face disappointment or pressure? How would I respond to a homeless person on the street, my spouse after a disagreement, or maybe even my neighbor’s question about the reality of God? A shift toward a heavenly focus can be as subtle as closing internet clickbait in favor of time in the Bible or redirecting a conversation with a friend in order to steer away from the potential of gossip. I can place my focus with intention and follow it.

Where our treasure is, our heart lies. Where our gaze lands, our thoughts follow. When we focus on Jesus and his good news, we are primed to walk nearer to him, speaking and behaving in ways that bring us ever closer to our Savior. 

Photo credit

Called Inside

Circe Denyer, public domain

The evening was unusually warm for early April. Large fans hummed to the right and left of the communion table. We could see them oscillating in unison, but their breeze never made it to the choir loft where we rehearsed Mozart’s Requiem for First Presbyterian Church’s annual spring concert. The large double doors at the entrance were propped open, inviting night air to enter the sanctuary like a beautiful spring bride, ready to make her way down the aisle.

Throughout my four years at W&J College, I went home nearly every weekend, so I was an infrequent face in the congregation of this church. However, the pastor and I built a strong friendship, and my music professor often spoke of the high-quality choral performances at First Presbyterian, encouraging students to participate. That’s how I found myself in a choir loft on an April evening, working to perfect the alto line of one of the most beautiful pieces of choral music in the world.  

A choir rehearsal—especially of an intricate, complex piece—can be a frustrating exercise in Red Light, Green Light. Sometimes, only a bar or two passes before the conductor stops everyone for a series of corrections. Off we go again before coming to a full stop once more, only inches down the score. But from time to time, especially in the final weeks before a performance—as we were that night—the music is allowed to stretch and soar. Notes follow notes until the choir hears what all its diligence has finally created.

As our voices rose and fell and blended into one instrument, our sound escaped the loft, burst from the church, and spilled onto the street. Apparently, our music circulated outside, for soon a group of passers-by entered the double doors, compelled by the beautiful sound. The young people, perhaps in their early twenties, elbowed and nudged one another, teasing as they entered a place they didn’t expect to be. They looked out of place in their t-shirts, tank tops, and baggy shorts. One removed a ball cap.  Another ran his fingers through his hair. They settled in the last pew, their laughter and jabs turning to silence and stillness as Mozart worked his charms.

Compelled. Sometimes we are drawn forward without our express permission. We simply cannot help ourselves. We are compelled to take steps we had not planned, to stop when we intended to go, to wait when we were eager to proceed, to speak when we would normally have remained silent, to reach out when our personality would typically tell us to withdraw, or–like those young folks on the street—to enter when we would have walked right by on any other evening. God compels us, his chosen children. Far bigger and mightier than Mozart, the God of all the universe calls us by name to come to him. By his Holy Spirit, he reaches into our hearts and tugs us toward Christ—a beckoning we simply cannot resist. Christ reminds us in John 6:37 and 44, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out…No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And “I will raise him up on the last day.”

Oh, I praise God for drawing me, a sinner, close to himself! The very inertia of my corrupt humanity would have naturally kept me dead in my sin. I could never please God in my regular old human self (Romans 8:7-8). I needed him to pull me away and interrupt what I would surely have been.  

I think of a long-ingrained habit, like putting on my seatbelt. I do it without thinking or planning. Something out of the ordinary must occur to stop the automatic urge to reach over and pull the belt across before driving away from the curb. Sometimes one of my children calls out for help with his car seat, or someone requests that I insert a CD in the stereo or roll down a window. I am compelled to step outside of my routine, and for a moment, I’m pulled out of autopilot.  When I snap back to my task, I feel surprised to find myself unbuckled. Thank God that he has the power to interrupt the automatic path of sin, compelling me and sinners throughout time to draw close and walk beside him toward holiness when our nature would have wallowed in the dark for eternity. We may look at ourselves—post conversion—in grateful awe, knowing that we would never have reached salvation without his irresistible grace.

The impromptu audience in the last row of First Presbyterian may have walked past the pretty church on many warm evenings. They likely lived nearby and socialized in the neighborhood, simply enjoying the night with friends. Perhaps they were heading to meet up with other people or to catch a ride elsewhere. But on that evening, the sweet strains of the Requiem stopped them in their tracks, compelling them to postpone their plans for something far sweeter.

May our Lord always compel us to the sweet beauty of his embrace, a call we cannot resist.  As we walk through lives that are complex and often fast paced, are we waiting in the stillness for his voice?  Listen, my friends. Allow yourself to hear and know his undeniable voice.