There is such urgency in Jesus’ voice as he warns his followers to stay awake and be on the lookout for the Son of Man. This was the name Jesus used most often for himself because it proclaimed his mission: to embody the heavenly in the form of the human, to be with us in all holiness in the midst of our everyday world. With burning insistence Jesus proclaims a ‘realized eschatology’: the coming of the Son of Man at some time in the future is already unfolding in the present age. The yet-to-come has already begun: we should stay alert and look for signs of the holy breaking into our mundane lives at any moment, indeed, at this very moment.
But how often do we look at life like this? When do we ever notice? We are habitually oblivious to the richest, deepest dimensions of life. We sail through life in a spiritual stupor. We notice so little and expect even less from a God that we keep at arm’s length by our own neglect. Like sleepwalkers unconscious of what’s right there before us, we look, but don’t really see.
Take my life among the birds, for example. Each year a team from the Audubon Society comes out to our land on Johnson Point and counts the birds that live around us. I gaze out and see half a dozen species, the blue jays and the mourning doves, the chickadees and the sparrows, the crows and the wild turkeys. But the birders, they look around and they find . . . well, last year they identified forty-four different species inhabiting the Point. I look but I don’t see the double-crested cormorant or the eastern phoebe, the hooded merganser or the American bittern; I listen to the birdsong, but I don’t recognize the alder flycatcher or the black-billed cuckoo, the yellow-rumped warbler or the red-eyed vireo. That’s because it requires learning where to look and knowing how to identify the winged beauty surrounding me; it takes attentiveness and discipline to attune myself to the music of the birds.
It’s the same thing when it comes to recognizing the Son of Man, the holy in human form in your daily life. It’s a skill you can master, an awareness and a sensitivity that you can practice and develop. It’s a matter of learning to focus on what is sacred and stunning in the ordinary run of your life. It comes down to the question of where you put your attention. This means staying alert so that your time is not consumed by pointless distractions. It requires resisting the culture’s push for you to be constantly preoccupied and enmeshed with so much that is trivial and inconsequential. The mission is to declutter your heart.
‘Staying awake’ means learning to develop an attitude of ongoing expectation, becoming increasingly alert to the movement of God that is ever present and about to touch your life. It involves cultivating the element of surprise in your life — surprise that God’s grace and goodness could be lavished on you in such small and ordinary things.
We took our three-year-old grandson trick-or-treating this halloween; it was his first time making the rounds. Looking sweetly ferocious in his Tyrannosaurus Rex dinosaur costume, he tentatively approached the first house, greeted the neighbors, roared for them, and received his reward. Coming down the porch stairs full of excitement, he declared, “Look, Pop-Pop, I’ve got halloween!” He was ready to go home then, until we told him he could stop at the next house. He did, and he came down the walk exclaiming, “Look, Pop-Pop, more halloween!” And for the next five houses until we turned home, after each stop he’d shout the incredible news, “Look, Pop-Pop, more halloween!”
Our little grandson was awed and delighted by the gift and the joy that was right there for him in his own neighborhood! Being “surprised by joy,” as C.S. Lewis once put it, is what Jesus wants you to wake up to and be on the lookout for. He wants you to be startled by how completely surrounded by grace, by God’s great goodness, you really are.
But to experience the surprise, you must learn simply to stop. As a boy riding my bicycle over the tracks a mile from where we lived, I remember thinking about that imposing railroad crossing sign reminding everyone to ‘Stop, Look, and Listen.’ That warning is important not just for crossing tracks, but for how you proceed through life, as well. To recognize the sacred in life’s ordinary moments you must be willing to stop, to interrupt your pressured schedule, to slow down and look and listen for the signs of grace surrounding you.
The essential thing is to develop the habit of appreciating your life as a gift. Your life is full of poignant, tender moments of surpassing beauty, moments that will never recur. Look at what is happening around you just now; things will never be exactly like this, ever again. If you don’t stop, look and see, if you don’t take notice of the beauty around you, of the love that is nearby you — in this moment — you’ll miss it forever.
We act as if we’ve got a million years to take life in, but this is the only brief sojourn we’ll ever have — just one precious chance to get life right and live it to its fullness, Cherish this time that you’ve been given for a while, but not forever. If only you knew when a thief was coming, Jesus warned, you’d stay awake. The thief is time; the stolen goods, our one life to live.
In the compelling play Our Town, young Emily Gibbs who dies in childbirth is given one last chance to return from the dead to observe her twelfth birthday. Seeing the beauty of the world she once inhabited with a new clarity, she sadly remarks, “So all that was going on and we never noticed. Do any human beings ever realize life while they still live it — every, every minute?” And the answer comes, “The saints and poets maybe — they do some.” The saints and the poets — two classes of people especially adept at taking hold of what is heartbreakingly lovable in our pedestrian world. And, I would add, the artist and the musician — they do, too. For, to be awake and alive to the coming Son of Man is to see the world with the artist’s perceptive eye, to listen to your life with the musician’s discerning ear, to embrace each day with a poet’s trembling heart.
When you acquire this brave spirit that is is vigilant and open, accepting and grateful for whatever God has in store for you, you’re equipped to handle anything in life. You’re able to find consolation and hope even in the most difficult of circumstances. As a friend wrote me, “Sometimes I feel swallowed up in pain. I work so hard to try to get rid of the things that hurt. It’s then that I really have to focus on the blessings all around me. I’m determined not to miss out on seeing the beauty and love that endure, no matter what.”
Facing life this way is not a retreat from reality; it can be a source of courage and a goad to commitment in the world, as well. Paying attention like this, as the poet Mary Oliver put it, “draws one to devotion, which means one is concerned with [the world’s] condition, how it is being treated.” (The Writer’s Almanac Bookshelf, an interview of Mary Oliver by Joy Biles, October, 2016)
Sleeper, awake. Live the rest of your life with the ongoing attitude of great expectation. Be ever alert to the movement of the Son of Man who is about to touch your life. Cherish the extraordinary presence of the holy in your mundane, precious life. It is all gift, if only you stay awake for it!
© Edward R. Dufresne, 2016