WORSHIP: The Practice of Paying Attention

Theme for May

The intention of the themed year is to help Unitarian Universalists build a robust spiritual and ethical vocabulary. The themes are points of departure for religious liberals seeking to think, speak and act theologically, prophetically and prayerfully. The themes reclaim religious language, casting old terms in a new key to deepen spiritual grounding and sharpen moral reasoning. More at: wbuuc.org/themes or sign up for a circle at wbuuc.org/classes.

Download 2019May Worship – paying attention.pdf


  • If you don’t worship a god or gods, what do you worship?
  • What is worthy of your attention?
  • What keeps you attentive to your life?



Worship – Old English worðscip, wurðscip (Anglian), weorðscipe (West Saxon) “condition of being worthy, dignity, glory, distinction, honor, renown,” from weorð “worthy” (see worth) + -scipe (see -ship).  

“Mindfulness is known in the Tibetan language as trenpa, which bears the longer translation “the ability to hold your attention to something.”” – from “Walk Like a Buddha: Even if Your Boss Sucks, Your Ex Is Torturing You, and You’re Hungover Again” by Lodro Rinzler



“A few minutes ago every tree was excited, bowing to the roaring storm, waving, swirling, tossing their branches in glorious enthusiasm like worship. But though to the outer ear these trees are now silent, their songs never cease.” ―  John Muir

“Religion is for people who’re afraid of going to hell. Spirituality is for those who’ve already been there.” ― Vine Deloria Jr., Standing Rock Oglala-Sioux author and theologian

“A person will worship something, have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts, but it will out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshiping we are becoming.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson



[O my Lord] By Muslim saint and Sufi mystic Rabi’a,Translated By Jane Hirshfield

O my Lord,
if I worship you
from fear of hell, burn me in hell.

If I worship you
from hope of Paradise, bar me from its gates.

But if I worship you
for yourself alone, grant me then the beauty of your Face.


The Worship of the Visible Spectrum 

By Judith Skillman, White Canadian/American poet & artist

This is the light
which, like a sudden stroke of fortune,
finds itself lodged in a particular flower.
Take the primrose, hardy
as a crystal. Then we love the saturation point
of petals, and celebrate the specific,
like the child with his primary colors,
each on thick enough to stay put.

Or this light is merely the lightness of birds,
an adjective. Cheerful, but holding no opinion
on the matter of flight. Unconcerned.
As by some miracle the re-headed parrot finch invests its feathers in every range
of the visible spectra. This makes it rare,
forbidden for export.
A probable victim of poachers and extinction.

There are other birds, so brilliantly hued
they are labelled ‘problem birds.’
Nervous and shy, they crave
privacy and drop dead in captivity for no apparent reason.
There is no way to guarantee
that they will breed.
To them the light is everywhere,
a frivolous interruption, a lack of dark.

Yesterday the sun fell into my son’s bowl
like a bird he chose to save.
To him windows are yet prisms,
leaving approximate rainbows on the walls.
Night requires a twenty-five watt bulb,
and the chicken he lost to the dogs
still carries its soul, a few yellow feathers
wrapped in a baggy.



Give Me Your Stars to Hold by Sara Teasdale, White American Poet – lyrics, Richard Waters, White American musician – Music

Peace flows into me
As the tide to the pool by the shore;
It is mine forevermore,
It ebbs not back like the sea.

I am the pool of blue
That worships the vivid sky;
My hopes were heaven-high,
They are all fulfilled in you.

I am the pool of gold
When sunset burns and dies–
You are my deepening skies,
Give me your stars to hold.


The Morning Song by Joy Harjo, Muscogee (Creek) Nation Poet Singer/Songwriter

The red dawn now is rearranging the earth
Thought by thought
Beauty by beauty
Each sunrise a link in the ladder
Thought by thought
Beauty by beauty
The ladder the backbone
Of shimmering deity
Thought by thought
Beauty by beauty
Child stirring in the web of your mother
Do not be afraid
Old man turning to walk through the door
Do not be afraid



The Benefits of One-Pointed Attention from Passage Meditation, By Eknath Easwaran, Indian-born spiritual teacher

The one-pointed mind, once we have obtained it, gives us tremendous loyalty and steadfastness. Like grasshoppers jumping from one blade of grass to another, people who cannot concentrate move from thing to thing, activity to activity, person to person. On the other hand, those who can concentrate know how to remain still and absorbed. Such people are capable of sustained endeavor. …

People who cannot meet a challenge or turn in a good performance often suffer from a diffuse mind and not from any inherent incapacity. They may say, “I don’t like this job,” or “This isn’t my kind of work,” but actually they may just not know how to gather and use their powers. If they did, they might find that they do like the job, and that they can perform it competently. Whenever a task has seemed distasteful to me – and we all have to do such things at times – I have found that if I can give more attention to the work, it becomes more satisfying. We tend to think that unpleasantness is a quality of the job itself; more often it is a condition in the mind of the doer.

The same may be said for boredom. Few jobs are boring; we are bored chiefly because our minds are divided. Part of the mind performs the work at hand and part tries not to; part earns his wages while the other part sneaks out to do something else or tries to persuade the working half to quit. They fight over these contrary purposes, and this warfare consumes a tremendous amount of vital energy. We begin to feel fatigued, inattentive, restless, or bored; a grayness, a sort of pallor, covers everything. How time-conscious we become! The hours creep, and the job, if it gets done at all, suffers. The result is a very ordinary, minimal performance, since hardly any energy remains with which to work; most of it goes to repair the sabotage by the unwilling worker.


When the mind is unified and fully employed at a task, we have abundant energy. The work, particularly if routine, is dispatched efficiently and easily, and we see it in the context of the whole into which it fits. We feel engaged; time does not press on us. Interestingly too, it seems to be a spiritual law that if we can concentrate fully on what we are doing, opportunities worthy of our concentration come along.


Pay Attention by Rab. Adam Greenwald, Jewish American Rabbi

“And God appeared to Moses, because he had turned aside to look.” Exodus 3:4

Lawrence Kushner, a contemporary Reform rabbi and scholar of Jewish mysticism, suggests that we have long misread the story of the burning bush. He writes, “The burning bush was not a miracle. It was a test: God wanted to find out if Moses was capable of paying attention to something for more than a few minutes… There is another world, hidden right here within this one, whenever we pay attention.”

As modern urbanites, we are able to go through our daily lives mostly unconscious of the natural world. Yet, over the last fifty years, the environmental movement has taught us that the future of this planet largely depends on our ability to pay attention to this hidden world: We have must learn to pay attention to the fragile, intricate web that connects all living things. We must learn to ask questions about the origins of the products we use and the foods we eat. We must learn to see the ways, big and small, that our personal consumption choices impact the health of the whole biosphere. It is with good reason that Nigel Savage, the founder of Hazon, has called our era “the age of awareness.”

The choice of whether or not to live in a state of awareness can have profound results. Moses could have walked past the burning bush without a second thought; but, by paying attention he gained the opportunity to bring a message of liberation to his People. We too can ignore our environment, but it will be at our own peril. If we hope to become responsible stewards of this planet for future generations, we must begin by opening our eyes and hearts. We must begin by paying attention.


Driving as Secular Worship and Self-Transcendenceby Joan Didion, white American writer

The freeway system … is the only secular communion Los Angeles has. Mere driving on the freeway is in no way the same as participating in it. Anyone can “drive” on the freeway, and many people with no vocation for it do, hesitating here and resisting there, losing the rhythm of the lane change, thinking about where they came from and where they are going. Actual participants think only about where they are. Actual participation requires a total surrender, a concentration so intense as to seem a kind of narcosis, a rapture-of-the-freeway. The mind goes clean. The rhythm takes over. A distortion of time occurs, the same distortion that characterizes the instant before an accident. … The extreme concentration required [for driving] in Los Angeles seems to bring on a state of heightened awareness that some locals find mystical.


The Practice of Paying Attention,sermon excerpt by Rev. Cathlynn Law, white American Pastor

What is the practice of paying attention? We pay attention to the speedometer, our watches, the cellphone, the list of things to do. But none of those necessarily meets the criteria for reverence. Reverence requires a certain pace. It requires a willingness to take detours, side trips, which were not part of the original plan. Philosopher Paul Woodruff says that “Reverence is the virtue that keeps people from trying to act like gods. Reverence is the recognition of something greater than the self- something that is beyond human creation or control, that transcends full human understanding.”  He goes on to say:  “Worship is not always reverent; even the best forms of worship may be practiced without feeling and therefore without reverence.”


An Altar in the Worldtwo Excerpts, by Barbara Brown Taylor, white American theologian

The Practice of paying attention can be as simple as looking twice at people and things you might just as easily ignore. Like all the other practices in this book, paying attention requires no equipment, no special clothes, no greens fees or personal trainers.  You do not even have to be in particularly good shape.  All you need is a body on this earth, willing to notice where it is, trusting that even something as small as a hazelnut can become an altar in this world.

What is saving my life now is the conviction that there is no spiritual treasure to be found apart from the bodily experiences of human life on earth. My life depends on engaging the most ordinary physical activities with the most exquisite attention I can give them. My life depends on ignoring all touted distinctions between the secular and the sacred, the physical and the spiritual, the body and the soul. What is saving my life now is becoming more fully human, trusting that there is no way to God apart from real life in the real world.