We live in an older subdivision in the DC suburbs, and our house backs up to a wooded area. In the winter we can see other houses, but right now, I can sit on my back deck and see nothing but tall oak trees and green leaves.
Then there’s the sound. Just across the street, looming behind our neighbors’ houses, are tall sound walls to mitigate the noise from the busy four-lane parkway on the other side. We hear the rumbling noise of cars and trucks speeding by at 60 miles an hour whenever we’re outside.
What Do You Listen To?
Against this background is the music of the birds—all different kinds of chirps and trills. Sometimes I hear a woodpecker. Other times, I hear the rustle of squirrels in the leaves, and in the summer, cicadas. Always, always, the drone of cars goes on. But I choose to listen to the birds.
Our lives and our characters are shaped by who and what we pay attention to. In the media-saturated culture in which we live, our choices are endless. Streaming television shows and movies, social media, 24-hour news coverage, podcasts—all of it ensures that we don’t need to spend one moment in silence, self-reflection, or prayer if we don’t want to. We read and listen in bits and bytes, shifting from one thing to another as our interest or curiosity or outrage takes us.
“Do not be conformed to this world,” Paul writes in Romans 12:2, “but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
My reading and viewing habits shape the way I think and interact with God and other people. I’m prone to falling down an Internet rabbit hole rather than spending time in prayer and Scripture reading. I must pay better attention to what I’m paying attention to.
Slow Down, Be Still
In a world of easy distraction, it’s a discipline to be still and quiet. It’s a discipline for me to read a book rather than scrolling on Twitter or turning on the latest TV show. And it’s a discipline to learn who to listen to in a culture where “influencers” abound.
That’s where the Church comes in. The Sunday liturgy forces me to slow down and focus—to sing, to listen, to respond to God in community. The silence before Confession. The voices of Scripture, sermon, and song. With my phone on silent and my teenagers (mostly) silent, I re-learn how to be present in the presence of God, and to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit instead of being overwhelmed in the cacophony of our time.
But one hour a week is not enough to reorient my mind toward God and away from myself. That’s when I rely on a particular set of influencers—my fellow believers. When I’m in a Bible study group, weekly meetings keep me accountable to spend time reading and studying. Listening to other group members expands and enriches my understanding. Getting to know each other gives us the opportunity to pay attention to the constant work of the Holy Spirit in each others’ lives.
Listen, God is Calling
The single most mind-renewing practice for me has been my church’s women’s book group. Month after month, reading classic and contemporary books on living a Christian life has turned my eyes and thoughts to Jesus. Most of the books I would not have read on my own, or even have known about without this group. And even better, I get to spend a few hours a month talking about books and Jesus with an intergenerational group of believers. Paying attention particularly to the women a generation ahead of me has encouraged and taught me what a lifetime of dedication to renewing our minds can look like: wisdom, grace, patience, and kindness.
Still, the constant rumble of daily life—the tasks to be done, the bad news of the day, the struggles of ourselves and people we love, the endless options for entertainment or outrage or despair—continues. Over and above the noise, God still calls. God still loves and forgives and sends us out into the noise to spread His kingdom. And each day, we can listen for God’s call like I listen for the birdsong on my deck. God’s voice is all around us, in His Word and Sacrament, in prayer, in the company of other believers. We just need to pay attention.