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Stewarding Attention: Beyond Mindfulness and Marshmallows

Ding. Beep. Chirp. Flash. These days, it’s hard to find time to pay attention to what matters when so many competing gadgets are alerting us to their priorities. But, when we do make space for what matters, what, well, does matter? Today’s post begins a three week series on Stewarding Attention by Jason Misselt. I hope you attend to Jason’s wise reflections.  

Yours truly,

Adam Copeland, Center for Stewardship Leaders


Stewarding Attention: Beyond Mindfulness & Marshmallows

Jason Misselt

Attention is increasingly recognized as a precious resource. We hear much about the myth of multitasking and the dangers of distracted driving. Mindfulness is touted as a cure all and young parents learn to fret over “marshmallow tests.

But what does this all have to do with stewardship and, more particularly, the stewardship of attention? It’s a mixed bag.

Yes, attention can be squandered just as surely as a talent or a share of property -- and with much greater ease. But focusing on wastefulness fails to add much to the conversation.

And, yes, mindfulness -- “a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations” -- is a kind of attentiveness that’s proved helpful to many. Depleted attentions greedily “borrow trouble.

But we can also be too attentive to the present. Good chunks of the biblical witness call us out of our present preoccupations: “strive first for the kingdom of God,” “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds,” “whatever is true, whatever is honorable. . .think about these things.” A stewardship of attention must attend to these differences.

Finally, yes, the capacity to look beyond life’s “marshmallows,” to delay gratification, to attend to possibilities beyond and behind the present, must also figure in here.

But while “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” there’s often an instrumental or grasping character to straight up “marshmallow test” attentiveness. It lives most fully in spreadsheets. It looks towards the future but mostly as a maximizing calculus. It’s the kind of attentiveness that might urge Midwestern parents to enroll their preschooler in Chinese lessons “because of job prospects.”

Building on the strengths and weaknesses of these instances and insights, I commend an extended C.S. Lewis snippet. Originally functioning as a mid-20th century introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, I offer it here as a summary invitation into a peculiar kind of attention -- one mindful, not so much of the present, but of what the present takes for granted, of what’s been hidden in plain sight -- and the stewardship thereof.

Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. . .We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century -- the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?” -- lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness. . .The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. . .To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.

Herein lies the problem. Lewis provides a critical counterpoint to our conventional wisdom on attention: when we attend, if we attend, the present is too much with us. But reading old books (and lots of them) is tough medicine, a prescription liable to kill off good intentions.

Where then from here? We’ll consider gentler approaches to the stewardship of attention for congregations and their leaders in the weeks ahead.

For More Information

Jason Misselt designs innovation strategies for institutions old and young in Minneapolis, MN. Formative partnerships include The Fisher’s Net, Centered Life, and The Vibrant Congregations Project.

We invite you to attend, “Beyond Abundance: Faithful Stewardship Language to Fit Our Realities” a daylong stewardship conference at Luther Seminary, Aug. 23, 2017 (10 a.m. – 3 p.m.). For more information, and to register, visit this website.

Author information was updated as of the article's post date. Author profiles may not reflect author's current employment or location.

"Marshmallows" image by Kent Landerholm. Creative Commons licensing on Flickr.

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