Our Scottish terrier Zelda loves her daily walks, but the heat of Missouri summer days prevents us from going out before twilight. Once the sun starts its evening decent and the heat of the day starts to dissipate (though the humidity does not), we head out the door and wind our way through our neighborhood.
About the same time, something else comes out. They fly overhead like the birds I’m accustomed to seeing during the daytime. But they’re not birds. They flutter and dart about like butterflies with their paper-thin wings. But they’re not butterflies.
I often wonder whether I’m the only person to notice the bats. Matthew 6:26 comes to mind: Jesus says, “Look at the birds of the sky, that they do not sow, nor reap, nor gather crops into barns, and yet your Heavenly Father feeds them.” I’m sure the same is true for the bats. Jesus reminds us that God attends to all the details of all his creation all the time, including the bats flitting around my neighborhood.
We cannot pay attention to our world the way God can. Nothing is obscured from his view. He is omniscient. Humanity is not. But in noticing the bats, I’ve come to value noticing obscurity as a spiritual practice within Christian obscurity. It teaches us to pay attention, to wonder, and to respond.
First, we pay attention in our physical world. We probably need to slow down. And then we need to zoom in. A quilting friend once told me, in regard to a small mistake I made on a crafting project, “If you can’t see it while trotting by on the back of a horse, don’t sweat fixing it.” Her sentiment is exactly the opposite of what I’m talking about. In noticing obscurity, we have slowed down, dismounted, and are paying close attention to what’s happening around us.
Paying attention to nature is a great place to start. Photography, collecting, and writing poetry are all activities that force us to slow down and zoom in. They can’t be done in a hurry and without paying attention to details. People watching (non-creepy people watching, that is) can also teach us to notice what’s happening around us.
What happens when we pay attention? We could stop at our observation and let it fall flat. When I visited the Grand Canyon in my twenties, I walked up to the edge and said, “It’s a big hole in the ground. What else is there to see?” I was determinedly underwhelmed I’m ashamed to confess. (I was not in a good place as a human being; hence, the attitude issue. But that’s another story.)
The alternative to stopping at observation is to respond with wonder. We ask questions of ourselves and God about what we’ve noticed, and we may move from seeing with only our physical senses to seeing with our spiritual senses. Holy Spirit is always at work around us, but we need eyes to see and ears to hear how he’s revealing his character, spiritual truths, his love, and more in the world.
Jesus taught in parables because the people’s eyes and ears were not open to seeing and hearing beyond the physical world. In Matthew 13:14-16, Jesus explains how the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled:
“‘You shall keep on listening, but shall not understand;
And you shall keep on looking, but shall not perceive;
For the heart of this people has become dull,
With their ears they scarcely hear,
And they have closed their eyes,
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
Hear with their ears,
Understand with their heart, and return,
And I would heal them.’
But blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears because they hear.”
My hope as we move from paying attention to wonder is that we turn our eyes, ears, and hearts to God for his hot take on what we’ve noticed. From there, we have a choice in how we respond.
How do we respond when we are in awe of the bats flying around our neighborhood? When we wonder about the homeless man on the corner while we wait at a stoplight? When we are surprised by a fresh revelation of how fast our children are growing up before our eyes?
We have a choice here, too. We could let the wonder fall flat with a non-response. This often feels the safest. No vulnerability required.
We could respond to God with a breath of praise and thanksgiving for what we’ve wondered at. Wholeheartedly offering up our observation and questions to him.
We could take action. Being kind and gentle with a stranger. Speaking a word of encouragement to someone. Taking an action that costs you something: your courage, your time, your emotions, your money.
As you consider how you will respond, ask Holy Spirit to lead you. Listen for his guidance and respond in obedience. Afterwards, reflect on whether you were eager to follow his lead or whether you had resistance rising up within you.
I hope to see the bats while I am walking Zelda now. As I watch for them, I find myself watching for other bits and bobs of obscurity in my neighborhood. A flower that had not bloomed yesterday is blooming today. The neighbor who is persistently weeding her flower beds in spite of the heat. I breathe a prayer of thanksgiving for the gorgeous environment God created here in southwest Missouri. I wave to my neighbor, and we both make comments about the weeds and the heat.
Slow down and watch for something obscure today. Look up and down and all around. Expect to be surprised. Let what you notice lead you to wonder. And let your wonder lead you to respond to God and to others.