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What Really Counts

My prayer is often invaded by unwanted distractions. Today, it was the plot of a novel I’m reading. The people that interrupted me don’t really exist. They’re characters in the mind of a writer, and his plot caused me to care about them. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good read – as long as it’s not so absorbing that it diverts my attention and energy away from what really counts.

What we pay attention to matters. The things we invest our energy and effort in make a difference. So do the things we neglect or avoid. When our attachments and preoccupations start to dominate our attention, they crowd out other things. As that occurs, time wasters and energy drains can push aside things that are more worthwhile and meaningful.

The way we invest our time and energy has profound implications for the spiritual journey. Grasping those implications includes exploring the way in which our attention and energy are focused both internally and externally.

When our attention and energy are internally focused, they center on our own needs. Feelings such as anxiety and fear lead us to be ego-driven. Unchecked, our lives may turn inward and become “all about me.” My friend Josephine tells a joke that describes this: “So, enough about me. What do you think of me?” When our internal focus is so strong that it dominates our attention, there is no room for others. The people in our lives become set pieces – pawns on our self-centered game board.

When the focus of our attention and energy is external, we may become passionate in carrying out a mission or purpose that is bigger than we are. There’s power in that. I recently heard a marine scientist describe her love affair with the parrotfish. She described its uniqueness, the critical role it plays in preserving sea coral, and the importance of sea coral in the ocean’s ecosystem. I was inspired by her passion for her mission of saving an endangered fish to help preserve the oceans and the planet. 

Our attention and energy may also turn outward to focus on others. As it does, it evokes our empathy, compassion, and desire to serve. When I visit family or friends in assisted living or memory care, I am struck by the dedication of the staff. Many of them provide heroic levels of care for the residents. Their subsistence-level wages make it clear that they aren’t in it for the money. Something more profound is happening. In a setting where I sometimes struggle to be patient, I see them interacting with the residents – providing care, radiating love, and spreading joy. The selfless, external focus of their attention and energy is an amazing gift. 

The spiritual journey invites us to be good stewards of our time and energy. These precious resources are limited. Stewardship calls us to make wise decisions in order to focus our time and energy on what counts. The Gospel gives us a lens for prayerfully discerning where to focus our gifts and skills. Several questions may help guide us.

Am I fully present? Life is more than showing up or going through the motions. Being fully present requires being available, attentive, and engaged. It includes active listening – leaving our agenda behind to enter into the other person’s experience. Mary of Bethany demonstrates this as she sits at Jesus’ feet absorbed in his message and his person. (Luke 10:38-42) Being fully present is only possible if we are intentional about extending understanding, empathy, and compassion to the other person. It takes a conscious choice and intense effort to let go of our agenda to be with the other person – in the moment, whatever they need, no matter the cost. Being fully present is part of the self-emptying cost of Christian discipleship. Discerning where and how to invest our time and energy includes considering whether we are fully present and engaged.

Are my connections vital? Presence naturally leads to connection – beginning with those closest to us. When our network of connections and relationships is authentic and vital, it extends outward to include the groups and communities that are part of our lives. The more deeply we embrace our identity in God, the more extensive those relationships become. Jesus’ ministry demonstrates this dynamic. It begins with the Jewish people and gradually extends outward to the people of Samaria, the Gentiles, and ultimately to “all nations.” (Matt. 28:19)

As disciples, our circle of concern continually expands – encompassing all those in need, particularly the poor and those most vulnerable. Ultimately, our concern extends to embracing solidarity with the entire human family – recognizing that all of us are daughters and sons of God. Discerning where and how to invest our time and energy includes considering the vitality of our connections and relationships. 

Are my efforts fruitful? Fruitfulness is more than productivity. Productivity focuses on completing a task, achieving a result, or making a product. It needs, however, to be placed under the scrutiny of important questions: Is the task worth doing? Is the result meaningful? Does the product fulfill a significant need? Fruitfulness goes beyond productivity to add the necessary dimension of what is worthwhile and meaningful. It is a higher bar – emphasizing the dynamics of the human spirit. Fruitfulness includes creativity, inspiration, learning, growth, generativity, and empowerment. 

Consider a worst-case productivity scenario: a soulless focus on productivity that drains the life out of workers as they sweat to earn survival wages making non-essential products. Contrast that with a better-case fruitfulness scenario: creating and delivering worthwhile products and services in a team-based work environment that encourages learning and growth.

Fruitfulness urges staying rooted in the vine of Christ and opening ourselves to pruning. (John 15:1-5) Discerning where and how to invest our time and energy includes considering whether and to what extent our efforts are fruitful. 

Do my efforts bring me more fully alive? The way we invest our time and effort can bring us more fully alive or it can drain the life out of us. I’ve experienced huge challenges that were invigorating even though they took enormous effort and energy. Those challenges evoked my passion – giving me the staying power to accomplish something worthwhile. The process was difficult, but it was life-giving. Thoreau articulated a sharp contrast to this when he referred to “living lives of quiet desperation.” When people are weighed down by soulless, mind-numbing efforts, they are slowly robbed of what is alive and vital within them.

Centuries ago, St. Irenaeus put it this way: “The glory of God is the humankind fully alive.” Investing our energy and effort in accomplishing what is worthwhile and meaningful isn’t just life-giving, it gives God glory and praise. Discerning where and how to invest our time and energy includes considering whether it brings us fully alive. 

Discernment is a prayerful process. It includes thinking, but it is grounded in prayer and leads to surrender. It is embracing our version of Jesus’ Gethsemane prayer: not my will, but yours be done. In discernment, we live out the words of the Lord’s Prayer: your kingdom come; your will be done.

When we pray to discern where to invest our energy and effort, sometimes the way forward emerges with clarity. We know what is being asked of us. Other times, discernment leaves us with only a vague hunch or some subtle intuition. Yet, we still have to move forward as best we can. We can be confident God is with us even when all we have to go on is a prayerful hunch. I’ve found that as I move forward with continued prayer, sometimes my hunch is confirmed. Other times, I’m led to change directions. The spiritual journey always includes the call to conversion. In the midst of clarity, hunch, and even confusion, God is with us – empowering us to be fully present and vitally connected. The divine presence continually prunes us so that we bear abundant fruit, becoming more fully alive in Christ.

Questions to Ponder

Here are some questions to ponder as you discern where to focus your energy and effort.

  • What are the time wasters and energy drains that you experience?
  • In what ways are your energy and attention focused internally – on your own needs and wants?
  • In what ways are your energy and attention focused externally:
    • On a mission or purpose?
    • On others?
  • As you consider your stewardship of your energy and effort, in what ways are you:
    • Fully present?
    • Vitally connected?
    • Fruitful?
    • Fully alive?
  • As you prayerfully discern where to invest your effort and energy, where are you being led?