The One Who Notices

On the occasion of the induction of Rev. Leanne Jenski as Coordinating Chaplain, Flinders Medical Centre, Flinders Medical Centre Chapel, 2.00pm, October 5, 2012

Mark 12: 37b -44.

Warning Against the Teachers of the Law


38 As he taught, Jesus said, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets. 40 They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”

The Widow’s Mite

41 Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. 42 But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.

43 Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. 44 They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

Last Wednesday I was at the airport to meet a colleague.

Standing at the foot of the escalators, with a couple of uniformed men patiently holding little signs, I noticed a man coming down who looked a little agitated. He hesitated as he stepped off the steps, looking around for a contact who seemed not to have turned up.

I caught his eye and smiled knowingly.

Eventually he circled around toward me.

“You’re a friendly person!” he offered.

“I’m a University chaplain, so I’m quite used to greeting strangers!” I replied.
“So what brings you to Adelaide?”

“I have business with the Adelaide City Council…So what a terrible business in Sydney last weekend with those Muslim riots…,” he ventured.

The stranger was probably in his mid 50’s. He had a metal badge with his name on it, pinned under his chin. It was a foreign name I could not easily decipher and even if I did, I could tell I would have difficulty pronouncing it! Although he spoke with a fluent Australian accent I guessed he was originally of Eastern European origin.

“Yes”, I replied, “very upsetting for the Muslim community. I went to Friday Prayer at Uni to show my solidarity with them.”

At that, his demeanor changed. He placed himself directly in front of me and the escalators, obstructing my view, and proceeded to subject me to a tirade about Muslims, the hijab and so on, which culminated in him saying “they will destroy everything we have fought for!”

His pickup person arrived and I proceeded to psychologically brush myself down from his verbal assault.

I feel compassion for him. He had invited me into his world to play his “them and us” psychological game. Such a conversation might have cemented yet another brick into the psychological wall he has been building to protect himself from the threat he feels. But I didn’t join in!

And I wondered – if we Australians, apart from our Aboriginal inhabitants, are made up of people who have come to this land often fleeing wars or persecution, how many like him are walking time-bombs of fear, injecting the anxiety of unreconciled memories into our daily social life, souring our society? I wish I had had the time to continue to listen and drain him of his venom. The chaplain in me wanted to allow him to explore his inner life, to find the chink in his wall of fear to allow me to enter as me; and for me to also create a hospitable space for him to feel safe to share his deepest fear. Because, I believe that only in that friendly space of honesty can one find liberation from living behind such a wall, which, in the end, does not provide the protection it claims. Liberation from a confinement to one of ease within himself and with others who are different, to find a capacity for empathy and compassion.

Jesus sat and watched.

His disciples must have been wondering what on earth he was up to! He seemed intent on watching these people make their temple donations. But why? Was he trying to get an idea about the extent of temple finances? Or was he attempting some kind of social research to determine relationships between ethnicity, social class and generosity?

But suddenly Jesus jumped up – “Did you see that!”

I would have thought that the spectacular would have been a huge donation by a rich benefactor! After all, aren’t most institutions cash-strapped and wondering where their next dollar is going to come from? We would probably put his name up on the wall as an example for all to see. “You too can be a great benefactor!”

But no! Just the opposite! It’s the small thing that was noticed and the huge sacrifice that was behind it.

Chaplains sit and watch. Chaplains discipline themselves in the face of a myriad of things that would otherwise demand their attention and keep them busy – as if busyness is about productivity! Busyness is the bane of chaplaincy. Rather, chaplains strive for empty space in their diaries, and far from conditioned feelings of guilt at having such luxury, utilize such space to put away anxieties that would distract, in order to be focused on watching – to position themselves to really notice; because, just as in this story of the widow’s mite, focused watching notices the smallest giveaway. That little moment, that muttered aside, may turn out be the most significant moment or word, opening the deepest exploration.

Chaplaincy is about noticing.

Seeing is not noticing.

Noticing connects the dots, like Sherlock Holmes’ forensic noticing of the smallest details and the deduction of the story of meaning that connects them.

When we notice we make a radical connection. We get inside what is happening. We get inside the story behind the dots we have linked. We empathise. We make connections of meaning to understand the other person, to imaginatively enter their inner life and invite the sharing of a vulnerable space. That shared space is sacred space. Common ground is sacred ground. That’s where the healing comes. That’s where the learning happens. That’s where lives are transformed.

For the Christian chaplain the noticing is placed alongside the story of Jesus. Connections are made between the story now and the story then. Values are discerned, but not to make moralistic judgements. The mirror of the comparative Jesus story adds other perspectives, other insights and understanding to discern meanings in the story now. For a Buddhist chaplain, the noticing is put alongside the Dhama, for the Muslim, the Qu’ran and the Hadiths, and so on for other faiths.

But unless we first sit and watch it is unlikely we will notice.

I recall attending the funeral of the wife of a member of the Mature Age Students Association at Flinders. Apart from him, I knew nobody at the funeral. Afterwards, as people we were milling around over tea and coffee, and having expressed my condolences to him, I began to feel very awkward. What should I do now? Break into conversation with seemingly closed clusters of friends and relatives? Or just leave, having expressed my sympathy? What does a chaplain do?

I decided to stand at the far side of the room where I could see everybody – where I could “sit and watch”, as it were. I prayed a blessing on each person in the room. No-one approached me, no words were spoken; and when people started to leave, I slipped out too.

Sometime much later, I happened to meet the widower on the campus. He greeted me warmly and proceeded to tell me how much my coming to the funeral meant to him. I told him how awkward I felt afterwards, but he assured me that my quiet presence at the edge of the room (which I thought he hadn’t noticed!) buoyed him with a sense of peace and assurance.

Sitting and watching, when everyone else seems occupied and busy, can sometimes be accompanied by feelings of awkwardness and uselessness, until one realises one’s purpose is not doing but being, even if praying may be an escape into doing!

Scripture is sometimes structured to provide “how not to” stories alongside “how to” stories. The story of Abraham offering hospitality to three strangers in the desert, for example, is followed by the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, which provides the counter story of inhospitality.

Between the preceding story about loving God and neighbour as the highest value and the Widow’s Mite, as the finest attitude of heart, is such a passage. Its intensity escalates.

v.38 The self-important religious professionals want attention for themselves – they don’t watch, they don’t notice, because they look out only for themselves.

v.39 They want to be number one ticket holders and head for the best food and wine.

v.40a  As if this is not enough, they take advantage of the vulnerable and dispossess them for their own ends

v.40b And the final hypocrisy – they make a show of their piety. They put themselves up as the epitamy of righteousness!

More often than not, Chaplaincy sits at the back of the room taking the time to watch. It requires developing the discipline of noticing – noticing the little things that are really the big things.

Chaplaincy is not open to the religious professional whose motto might be “it’s all about me!”

The chaplain’s motto is more likely to be “It’s not about me”. It’s being like that widow.

It is noticing, entering with kindness, tenderness and compassion into the depth with the other, empowering the other to identify and name their realities – which is where God is – and to claim fullness of life while accepting those realities.

To sit and watch, to notice, to empathise, to connect, to explore, to be transformed.
It starts with putting oneself in the position to notice.

2 thoughts on “The One Who Notices

  1. Love it! Thanks, Geoff, for a wonderful sermon. It is so true… People never know how much they contribute by just BEING with. When my father died and my brother's girlfriend came with him from America, she just sat with us, not saying anything, just being. It was the most wonderful gift and present/presence at the time. She'd never consider herself a chaplain, yet she demonstrated that skill perfectly. Thanks for being with all those that you have been with over the years – myself included. Thanks for noticing.

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