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Pay Attention: Your Life Depends on It
Psalm 63   July 4, 2021   Pastor Roger Barkley

Psalm 63:3-4 Because your love is better than life,
my lips will glorify you.
I will praise you as long as I live

That is a beautiful sentiment, but I confess to feeling some distance from it … maybe a little guilt or a sense of inadequacy because do I really believe that knowing God’s love is better than my actual life?

This was a favorite psalm in the early church when Christians faced lions and gladiators unless they renounced their faith.

I mean, I love God.

I feel gratitude to God.

I study God’s Word … but when push comes to shove, preserving my own life is pretty much priority #1 for me.

So, this psalm leaves me feeling inadequate in my faith.

But those feelings actually miss the point because Psalm 63 is filled with real lessons for us – and to get them we need to understand its context.

It is believed that David composed Psalm 63 while he was fleeing for his life in the Judean wilderness.

We’re talking now about the early history of Israel.

Remember that under protest, the prophet Samuel had anointed Saul as the first king of the united tribes, but Saul repeatedly disobeyed God.

Eventually, God grew impatient with Saul and had Samuel tell him that He was removing him from the throne.

When Saul learned that his young servant David was to replace him, he became enraged and tried to kill David.

As David’s fame as a warrior grew, the disgraced Saul’s jealousy led him to gather an army to track down and kill the national hero.

So, it was here in the brutal, rocky landscape of sweltering days and freezing nights of the Judean wilderness that David calls to God.

Psalm 63:1 O God, you are my God, I seek you,
my soul thirsts for You;
my flesh faints for You,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.

He’s describing both his physical setting – the dry wilderness – and his emotional landscape – my soul faints for you … there seems no relief from his weariness.

But David isn’t just passively waiting for God to show up; he is seeking God in a physical and emotional place that appears void of God.

Seeking God is a decision we make.

As we’ll see, we can either let the barren wilderness have the last word, or we can believe that God is present and turn our attention to seeking him.

And he goes on to say, (v. 3) Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you.

They say there are no atheists in foxholes, so maybe that is what David was experiencing – grasping for the hope that God would somehow save him.

That’s understandable.

Imagine hiding for days in hillside caves.

You jump with a startled jolt any time you hear a twig break or a pebble drop.

Lack of food leaves you with a pounding headache and an overall weariness.

And after a day without water your throat is parched and your voice raspy.

But water is scarce and you know that if you go to a stream or hunt for a rabbit dinner you could end up with a spear piercing your heart.

Maybe you’ve had wilderness times where your life was on the line.

It could be your life itself was on the line following a medical diagnosis.

We become very body-conscious at such times, aware of every new pain that might be the sign of a bad turn.

It could be your livelihood was on the line following a lay-off.

We are left fretting over and over about every bill, maybe tossing and turning at night worrying if employers will think we are under qualified or too old to hire.

It could be that your marriage was on the line following a big blow-up with your partner.

We sit in our parked car afraid to come home as we replay the most recent argument again and again.

Will we be divorced?
What about the kids?
Can I afford my own apartment?

Where do you find God in the midst of life’s wilderness?

It’s natural to be consumed with the worry of a bad health diagnosis, a job loss, or break-up – but David’s hiding in the wilderness is showing us a better way.

The pioneering psychologist William James said, “My life is what I agree to attend to”.

In other words, I have the power to decide what I will give my attention to, and that will determine my experience of life.

Was David aware of the dangers around him?

Yes, of course – he was a survivor.

But he also chose not to obsess on the dangers and so not to be owned by his fears.

Instead, he proved to be a man after God’s own heart – as he was twice called in the Bible – by deliberately bringing his focus to God … worshiping God and looking to God for deliverance.

This is a basic spiritual practice: making a conscious choice of where to put our attention because where we put our attention makes our experience of life.

There are two types of attention: “bottom-up attention” asks what are the immediate, involuntary things to hone in on.

Maybe it’s the siren that went down Balboa Blvd., that the air conditioning is too cold, or that you have a difficult phone call to make this afternoon.

Then there is “top-down attention”, where you choose to focus on your values or dreams.

The first chapter of Winifred Gallagher’s book Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life is titled “Pay Attention: Your Life Depends on It”.

Gallagher is a widely published author, but this book was especially important to her as she wanted her life and ours to be creative, meaningful and joyful.

But like everyone, she had wasted so much life distracted by worries, jealousies, and trivialities.

She felt the urgency of taking control of her attention when she faced a critical cancer diagnosis.

How could she hold her attention on the things she valued when the worries of her diagnosis and the difficulties of her surgery and treatment haunted her?

Gallagher explains how our attention is a finite resource.

By the way, now that we’re completing Michael’s wonderful study of the Gospel of Luke, we will use the Bible study time slot to see a video presentation made by Winifred Gallagher where she goes into this much deeper.

Where we put our attention is a fundamental spiritual issue, and I hope you will join us for that discussion.

She says, “Far more than you may realize, your experience, your world, even yourself are the creations of what you focus on. From distressing sights to soothing sounds, protean thoughts to rolling emotions, the targets of your attention are the building blocks of your life.”

I like that phrase, “the target of your attention”, and I think that is a point David makes in Psalm 63.

Psalm 63:7b I sing in the shadow of your wings

Yes, danger lurks in his wilderness, yet David chooses to give his whole being to praising God … making God the target of his attention.

Whatever I hold in front of me becomes the object of my attention, and the other things around me begin to fade from my awareness.

No one understands this better than advertisers.

The other night I was kidding around with Vivienne about her new car and said that she could have gotten a Rolls Royce for a quarter million dollars.

That led me to check out the local dealers and discovered that I was off by a factor of about two.

$450,000 to over $500,000 and you can take one of those beauties home.

But of course, you know what’s happened all week: Rolls Royce ads have been appearing in many of my internet feeds and on Facebook.

It happens with nearly any product you look for … and by the way, you can thank my son and his team at Google for engineering a lot of that.

They want that car to be the target of my attention.

If you’ve ever been plagued with a big worry, then you may have tossed and turned at night – fretting about your problem from every angle and considering every possible bad outcome.

But David says to change your focus, deliberately put your attention on God instead.

Psalm 63:5-6 My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,
and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
when I think of you on my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;

Hear that: he moves from a fearful, tossing and turning night to praise-filled night when he turns his mind – meditates – on God.

It’s a choice.

Sure, we have to consider our problem … I’m not talking about denial.

But give it some time and then let it go … which requires a conscious effort.

To start, maybe step back and remember how God saw you through a difficulty before.

Remember and give thanks for God’s help then and His help to come.

Instead of fretting, consciously take count of the blessings you have.

Maybe ask yourself what is the worst thing that could happen … and then consider if you could live with that and about how God would still be with you.

The choice to make God the focus of our attention might take some effort at first, but over time it becomes more natural to us.

Our brains are malleable, and with repeated experiences of shifting our focus from fear or idle distractions, we live more and more in God’s presence and thereby live with His peace and awareness of His guidance.

In one way or another, we are taking our finite mental energy and putting it on God rather than our fear or Facebook.

Estimates are that over a typical lifetime, we can process about 173-billion bits of information.

What you choose to give your attention to is a withdrawal from that account – will we choose pettiness, worry, envy, resentments, Facebook … or God?

You can feel the struggle David was having with his fear, and how he was putting effort into shifting his attention from the threats of Saul and the hardships of the wilderness to the promises of God who had already seen him through tough times and who had made promises about his future.

Psalm 63:8a My soul clings to you;

David found peace from God in the wilderness, and God soon led him to safety and into his appointed role as king.

But as I read this line, I hear some sense of desperation.

The hot and weary wilderness and the day-and-night threat of Saul hunting him were strong, and so to make God the target, the focus, of his attention was still hard.

At times he was reaching out and clinging to God.

That may be where you are at.

Or maybe you’ve made this shift in focus enough that it is more natural to you.

Whatever the case, where you put your attention now, this afternoon, and the coming week, will determine your experience of life.

As William James said, your life is what you agree to give your attention to.