Joyful and Kind Attention

Jay’s sermon on Matthew 18 for the beginning of a new school year.

It must not have been by accident that Minnesota Public Radio aired a speech on Tuesday of this week about building a stress-free life. The Labor Day weekend had just come to an end. Workers had returned to their jobs after relaxing at lake cabins or backyard patios or the State Fairgrounds. Students and teachers and parents were just beginning their transition into new fall schedules, with the logistical changes that involves. This time of year has a way of raising the anxiety level quite a bit, even for those of us who have been out of school for some time, but especially for those of you who have started new chapters of school or work. Getting up and ready for Sunday School can further add to the challenge, I realize. Summer is over; a new routine has begun. And that can always be stressful.

So it was an appropriate time for a large portion of the radio audience, I imagine, to hear Dr. Amit Sood, a professor at the Mayo Clinic School of Medicine. He has written a book about stress-free living and better health, and in it he provides some practical suggestions for living a happier life.

The first one is this: when you wake up in the morning, before you race ahead in your mind to all of the tasks on the day’s agenda, take five minutes and think about five people you are grateful for. It’s not a difficult project. As you lie in bed, reflect on five important people. Who comes to mind? What are all the ways that person has touched your life? Think about that and say a silent prayer of gratitude. Remember the first time you met a close friend or co-worker, and send your silent gratitude. Imagine that the person you are grateful for is very happy where he or she is right now, and send your silent gratitude. Perhaps there is a loved one who has died, whose life you are very grateful for. Listen in your mind to the voice of that person. Give that person a virtual hug in your mind, and send your silent gratitude.

The point of that five-minute exercise is to engage your mind in what he calls “joyful attention.” It makes a difference in reducing stress and improving health. It changes how we live each day.

There are other simple tips, too. For example, when you get home, for the first five minutes after arriving, don’t try to improve anybody. Well, that sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it? But give it a try. If you don’t have a partner or other people living in your home, think of your place of work or another community you’re part of, even church. When you first arrive, for just about five minutes, don’t try to make anyone change anything. When we start with suggestions for doing or being, we give the impression that the other person is bad, not good enough for a relationship. Yes, change and improvement can be good and necessary. But it can come later, after at least five minutes. Instead, begin with creative and genuine praise. Again, this is about joyful attention. It will make the other person happier, and it will make you happier, too.

Along with joyful attention, Dr. Sood advocates the benefits of what he calls “kind attention.” This involves things such as compassion and service to something larger than yourself and forgiveness. As an exercise in kind attention, he says, when you meet someone you are afraid of for some reason or don’t especially like, say quietly to yourself, “I wish you well.” You don’t have to say it out loud; in fact, you probably shouldn’t or you’ll start getting funny looks. Just say it to yourself, and then practice always looking at others the way you want the world to look at your kids or grandkids or parents or other people you love.

Developing a mindset of kind attention, it seems to me—one of acceptance and compassion—is much more complicated than just a five minute morning practice. It is really difficult.

I think that is something that the Gospel today affirms. Life together in community, in relationship with other people, can be really hard. Life together may itself even be a source of stress for us. There’s no way around it.

This passage is only the second time in the Gospel of Matthew that the Greek word for church—ekklesia—is used, and it’s to talk about conflict and how to manage it. There’s a series of steps: point out the fault one on one. If that doesn’t solve it, bring a couple of others along. If it’s still not resolved, get the whole community involved. It’s become a famous passage for churches in conflict. I have even heard it used as a verb, as in, “I had to Matthew 18 that guy.”

Yet the point of this passage is not really discipline, as it is often assumed. The point is reconciliation. Jesus is deeply concerned about our relationships with one another. Not only is he concerned, but he says that all of heaven is, too. The way we interact and live with one another here and now matters. So the steps here are not just a means to remove someone from a community; they are methods for restoring relationship. If it is not successful, then consider that person to be as a Gentile or a tax collector, Jesus says. But then remember that those are exactly the types of people Jesus spent much of his time with. Reconciliation is still and always the goal.

Why is this so important? Well, science can show that it matters for our personal health and happiness. But life in community can also provide a place of training in which we learn not just how to live better but how to experience abundant life. It is in community with other people where we try to be loving (sometimes failing and sometimes succeeding) that we learn how loving God is toward us. We are reminded that God is always faithful and seeking reconciliation.

Jesus gives some practical tips for restoring relationships and maintaining community. Speak the truth. Bring in others if necessary. Be persistent. But more than these practical tips, Christ says, “I will be with you. I will be faithful and loving and persistent in relationship with you. I am with you always.”

The beginning of a new school year gives us an opportunity to ask ourselves what kind of community we want to be here at Holy Trinity. I hope that we are and continue to be a kind of community that encourages spiritual growth and learning. We are learning more about who we are and how much we are loved and valued—each one of us. We can learn that through practicing compassion and forgiveness with others. We can learn that by being courageous enough to share our own lives—both our strength and struggles. That can be scary but also a path to greater freedom. In all of these ways of learning together, God is present with both joyful and kind attention.

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