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Advent 2008

The following is a sermon given at St. Francis Church in Stamford CT on the first Sunday in Advent, November 30, 2008. --E G. Happ

Paying Attention

Isaiah 64:1-9
Ps. 80:1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

We thank thee God for thy care
For thy bounty everywhere,
For this and every other gift
To thee our grateful hearts we lift.


“Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.
And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake." –Mark 13:33, 37

I remember this time of year as a young boy feeling as if I were stuck between the times. Thanksgiving is a recent taste; Christmas is so close, yet an interminable number of days hence. The anticipation grew daily; and the waiting was agony. I remember my aunt giving us one of those Advent calendars on a festive cardboard poster, the dates of December marked with the paper doors that you opened for each day, with a little surprise picture or words behind each flap. We put it on the refrigerator door and I would look at it every time I passed by --as if paying more attention to it would somehow speed up the clock and flip open all the doors in rapid succession when a stiff wind blew through the kitchen in a single gust.

It is this "paying attention" that I'd like to talk about this morning-- paying attention in learning, writing and being.

I. Back to School

When Mark first suggested I sign up for a Sunday chat, he mentioned my recent sabbatical at Dartmouth as something I may want to share with all of you. My first thought was, "sure, let me pull together my PowerPoint slides and recap some of lectures I heard and gave; that should be easy. After all, in business we're trained to think in PowerPoint and Excel. I could even throw in a 2-by-2 matrix -- so why not?" Perhaps to your disappointment, I decided to leave the slide deck for another time and tell some stories instead.

In a "leadership lunch" talk at the business school, I started by informing the students that I had about 30 slides, with data, graphs, and summary thoughts. In a few days they would remember almost nothing I said. But in the middle of the presentation, I said I'd tell a story, and they would never forget it. Of course, that built the anticipation for the story. But I could also see some pained expressions in the audience... as if they were thinking what in the world does a right-brain story have to do with left-brain business?

Yet we all know about the power of stories. We hear them on Sundays in the readings and the sermons; we tell them at gatherings; and we read them at bedtime. And we know those leaders in political and business realms that most engage and inspire us are good at weaving in the personal stories. And so this former senior partner at Boston Consulting Group opened a workshop with this story that I retold to the students that day.

A Tree in Zaire (From my May 15, 2008 Blog Entry; see

Four Peace Corps volunteers were making their way in a large Land Rover to a village in what was then Zaire. There was a single dirt road through a forest. A few kilometers from the village they discovered a large tree that had fallen, blocking the road. A villager was on top of the log chopping away with a hand-held axe. Wood chips were flying in every direction, but he was making little progress. The volunteers asked him to step aside. They pulled a cable from the winch in front of the truck and wrapped it around the tree. They tried the winch first, without success. Putting the truck in reverse, with all four wheels engaged, they attempted to drag the tree from the road. The wheels spun in the dirt. They made little progress. Villagers had begun to arrive down the dirt road, from the other side. As the volunteers gave up, restoring the cable to the winch, the villagers gathered around the tree murmuring. The man with the axe resumed his chopping. Off to one side, at the edge of field, the volunteers saw an old man smiling. He walked slowly up to the villagers at the tree and began to sing. The villagers joined him in one of those African songs that rises and falls with a cadence of call and response. As the song rose, the villagers all lifted. The tree moved a few inches. As the song fell, they put the tree down. Again and again, they sang and moved, sang and moved. In less than an hour, the tree was removed from the road. The volunteers got in their Land Rover and drove on to the village, with the people following in the dust.

When I first heard this story, it was about overcoming obstacles. It is certainly about that. But it is also rich with possibilities for leadership. If we are paying attention. Who are we in this story? Are we the man with the axe? The Land Rover with the winch? The village with the song? The old man with the vision? Who do we want to become? These are questions worth spending time with.

Another story is about the new world of conversation, which I call Cell Phones on the Green:

I was walking across the green in the center of the Dartmouth campus one afternoon, and noticed two coeds approaching each other talking on cell phones. It became obvious as they got closer that they were talking to each other. As they came face-to-face they kept talking. To each other! Then they smiled and walked on in opposite directions, still talking to each other. I stopped, put down my bag and thought about what I just saw. The cell phone was not a convenience or an add-on for these students. The phone was the conversation! That’s a mind shift even for business people addicted to their Blackberries. Are we ready for that in the workplace?

Gary Hamel, a strategy professor recently wrote “If you’re a CIO, you need to spend a lot of time out on the fringes of the Web because that’s where the innovation’s taking place. You need to spend a lot of time with people under 25 years old.”

As is often the case, our children are our key leading indicator for the future. I readily admit that were it not for my 14 year-old, I would not have a clue about why text messaging is a cool way to communicate. In fact it’s the primary way he and I connect. And I wouldn’t trade that for anything. The point is not whether we agree with this practice of always on, constant chatter; it’s whether have noticed that this is the way future business people communicate. Are we paying attention?

II. Poetry

I have been fascinated for four decades with how creative moments happen. I look for opportunities for them to happen and place myself in situations when they are likely.

Sharon Olds recently said “Poetry, as in therapy, is about backing up the mouse that just ran into the hole in the wall.” Stop! What just happened? Roll-back the tape and do an instant replay in your mind. Write down what you saw. This is often my thought process in writing a poem. The most important word in the sequence, however, is not “write” …it’s “stop!” When we pause, focus, stop the chatter, we are open to listening, to asking “what just happened?” The writing is then recording, like relating a dream after you woke up. That’s a kind of paying attention in reverse to what has just become “past” and a new openness to what may be coming around the corner. Listen to Bill Stafford’s words about his father listening in this way:

By William Stafford, A Scripture of Leaves, 1989

My father could hear a little animal step,
or a moth in the dark against the screen,
and every far sound called the listening out
into places where the rest of us had never been.

More spoke to him from the soft wild night
than came to our porch for us on the wind;
we would watch him look up and his face go keen
till the walls of the world flared, widened.

My father heard so much that we still stand
inviting the quiet by turning the face,
waiting for a time when something in the night
will touch us too from that other place.

“we still stand / inviting the quiet by turning the face.” Nice! And notice the openness and the waiting in the final two lines:
“waiting for a time when something in the night / will touch us to from that other place.”

A creative place for me is our annual silent retreat, which has become a weekend to meditate and write in an unplugged and plugged-in fashion—unplugged from the daily routine of life and business and plugged into the spiritual and natural setting in which I hear God speak. It is a type of paying attention when the creative can flourish. Much of my creative writing is from this three day retreat to West Cornwall and has been for the past dozen years.

One of the exercises I read about during a retreat is writing down all those things, places, and people that give you energy, and all those that sap you of energy. The point of the exercise is first becoming aware of what energizes you, and then choosing to put yourself in the contexts that move you. For me one of these places is hiking in the forest; walking along the Housatonic River in West Cornwall fits the bill. I wrote chapbook of poems about walking in the woods, with the following opening piece which I wrote at the retreat last March:


Watch for those times
in your life
when you come alive,
animated, he says;
see your arms gesturing
like two old men in the market
relating the news—
pay attention;
there lie the clues
to authenticity,
go to that place;
write it down.

III. Being

In last week’s Gospel we heard another side of paying attention “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Matthew 25:35-36, 40

So there is this spiritual side of attending to people. That should come as no surprise. We know this in the joy and love of giving of ourselves. But there is another side, and that is paying attention to the brokenness in our own lives. And here, I can speak with some authority. As a poet, I know that the most creative writing comes from either side of life: the bright side and the dark side; the ecstasy and the agony. What I’ve learned is that brokenness does not mean withdrawing, saying “I’m not worthy to speak;” it is precisely in our brokenness that we are called to speak.

When I told my daughters about an ending relationship, my oldest daughter wrote me the following in a letter:

“I … know that we don’t agree on many different things,” she said. “ However, if it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be here. You’ve also helped me out many different times in my life. You helped me to get into and through college, …to have Michelle [my first grandchild], to get married and have a beautiful honeymoon, and other things that would take a book to write. I’ve let some of the bad things that you’ve done in your life overshadow all the good you’ve done and for that, I am sorry.”

I was moved by this, especially since her conservative religious beliefs don’t allow for exceptions. I wrote her back saying:

“I appreciate your desire to focus on the good things you have experienced with me; that's important to me. I have always tried to act toward you with love and kindness, even when I have not been able to be present with you. I have tried to show you a face of Grace and now you are showing me a face of Grace. Thank you.”

How can we understand God’s love without these moments in our lives when we experience it through those close to us? It is as if God comes clothed in other people’s clothes, in other people’s faces and in their words. Perhaps this is the meaning of the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” John 1:14

We celebrate the Incarnation at Christmas, Emmanuel, “God with us,” reframes the question for us. The question is not “where do you find God?” It’s “where don’t you find God?” The story of Advent is that God is so near to us we cannot stand on ground that is not God. And that is what I want to pay attention to.

I went looking on the Internet for a picture of an Advent calendar like the one my aunt gave me years ago. I found it on Amazon and ordered a copy. It’s on the way. An email tells me it will arrive tomorrow. And I’m waiting, ready to open that first paper door and see what’s behind it.

The Gospel writer in today’s lesson tells us to “be awake;” “keep alert!” Something important is about to happen. We don’t know the hour, and we do know the hour. It’s now.


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