This past Sunday, I enjoyed the rare experience of attending worship with my family. Usually on Sundays, I’m on the road somewhere in Missouri, preaching or teaching. Some Sundays find me at hotel conference centers, speaking to large groups; and others find me at airports or on the highways, returning home from meetings or teaching engagements. So, it was a treat simply to sit in worship with family and friends, listening to my son sing with the choir.
The scripture was from Mark 13, including the mysterious, almost code-like apocalyptic images that baffle, provoke, irritate, electrify, terrify, or mystify so many readers. The preacher did a decent job of making the passage sensible, and hopeful. But there was one phrase that just kept jumping out of the text…at once wonderfully simply as well as strikingly profound. In this one short and otherwise confusing text, Jesus repeats a simple imperative three times in quick succession: “Keep awake!”
For Jesus to repeat this so emphatically three times in a row implies that one of the great hazards of the faith journey is spiritual acquiescence, a kind of grogginess that dulls us to what is true, and truly important. Sleepiness of spirit means we miss out on what God is doing, and perhaps overlook the presence of Christ right in our midst. By simply falling asleep, spiritually speaking, we miss God, and miss out on what God is calling us to be and do.
The peril of spiritual stupor is real, and we see this theme repeated in scripture many times. The disciples who hiked to the mountaintop with Jesus almost missed the transfiguration because they were sleepy! One story tells about someone whom others assumed was dead, but Jesus says, “He’s not dead; he’s sleeping.” In the Garden of Gethsemane, on the night which the disciples knew would be Jesus’ last among them, they fell asleep. Even after Jesus implored them to stay awake with him, they nodded off. Scripture also records one poor follower who dozed during a sermon and fell out the window. (Let that be a warning to the people in the pews!). If it hadn’t been for Mary and company on Easter morning, the disciples would have slept through the resurrection of Christ. In my mind this also accounts for the person in need of healing who reported, “I see people as trees walking.” A dulling of spiritual insight causes us to see people as things, and to overlook how each is a child of God made in the image of God.
Our twenty year old Christmas tree crashed and died as we were putting it up on Friday evening. (That’s another story!) So in good Wesleyan form, “I submitted to be more vile,” and headed to Wal-Mart, the mall, Hobby Lobby, and various other places I usually avoid during the Christmas rush in search of a tree. And “what to my wondering eyes did appear?” Tons of bleary-eyed, hurried people already looking overdone by the joys of the holiday season.
As I stopped and people-watched for a while, I thought about how easily people stop becoming people to us when we are hurried and bleary-eyed. People become things, objects, mechanisms in the machinery that bring to us the things we want, or obstacles and competitors to us acquiring what we want. The unseen laborers in the field who pick our fruit and the farmers who hire them; the machinists in the factories that manufacture our cars and the convenience store clerks we pay for the gas to drive them; the drivers who deliver our goods and the stockers who stack them on shelves for us; the clerks and waitresses and cooks and servers and tellers who we encounter every day….and all the other people who stand in front of us in lines and behind us at the check-out line, and all those who cut into traffic ahead of us on the roads and crunch popcorn behind us at movie theaters…if we’re not careful, we become so distracted by things that do not matter, so driven by things that are of little account, or so tired and burned out and spiritually exhausted, that they stop being human to us. We lose sight of people, of purpose, of what matters most. “Keep awake,” Jesus says. “Be alert.” “Stay attentive!” Following Christ, staying awake with him, requires a constant spiritual acuity, an attentiveness to see the coming of Christ, a preparedness of soul and character, a kind of spiritual attention. Stay awake.
I’m working on a new book, tentatively called Five Practices of Fruitful Christian Living that focuses on the personal spiritual journeys of disciples of Jesus Christ. The book explores the personal practices that help us become what God created us to be. The first chapter, “Radical Hospitality and the Fruitful Life” talks about practicing a radical receptivity to God and others. Following Christ causes us to open ourselves again and again to God and others, to constantly invite Christ and others into our hearts and to make space for them in our lives.
There is also a chapter on the practice of attentiveness, on the importance of noticing what God notices and seeing the world through God’s eyes. It takes a passionate attentiveness (rather than a groggy indifference) to notice the movement of the spirit, to hear whispers of God’s grace, to discern the presence and power of God among us, to identify the calling of God. It takes discipline and an intentional practicing of attentiveness for us to develop the interior life, the life of the spirit, the life of love, grace, forgiveness, mercy, justice, hope. As we practice spiritual attentiveness, we begin to see the world differently. We stay awake; we become alive; we practice resurrection. Through the eyes of faith, we fathom such questions as: Where is God in this? How have I seen God at work in the last few days? What might God be trying to provoke me to attend to? What does the world look like through God’s eyes?
Jesus’ teaching is wonderfully simple but profoundly important. “Stay awake!” Be alert. Notice. Notice people. Notice God at work. Look for the coming of Christ again and again into our lives and into the lives of others around us. Listen for God, and God’s calling. Stay awake!
Yours in Christ,