A couple of weeks ago we were gathering in the classroom where we come together for Confirmation each Wednesday. Some were done with the service project earlier than others so Jim, one of our adult leaders, volunteered to wait with a handful of young people who were the first to return.
I walked in a few minutes later —while the group was still small. Pretty soon Jim was asking me to ‘test’ Joe, one of our 8th graders. I was sent to the whiteboard where they had drawn a rough square which had been marked off into nine smaller squares. Joe left the room and Jim told me to choose a square. I walked to the board and pointed to one.
We called young Joe back in and we looked on as he stood and pondered the white board for a moment. I found myself watching him closely. A few moments later with little hesitation and eyebrows raised he pointed to the square I had chosen a few moments before.
We tried again. And again. And again. And every time Joe got it right. The other students arrived and pretty soon they were fully engaged in ‘testing Joe’ as well. Still, time after time Joe chose the square they had quietly pointed to while he was out of the room. It wasn’t long before others wanted to try to see if they could match Joe’s skill. I was especially entertained by the one young man who thought if he stood the way Joe did, if he tilted his head in the same way, if he tapped his leg just as Joe did he would be able to figure out which square had been chosen. Of course, he did not.
I tell you the truth when I say that for a while there I was thoroughly convinced we had a gift among us. Clearly I can be gullible, but before the night was done, I was actually wondering how we could get this remarkable young man on Letterman.
After we did our closing blessing and the students had gone their way, one of our other adult guides took me aside and explained the ‘trick.’ Apparently, Jim (the first guide who had gathered with our students before my arrival) was passing signals. It seemed that every time Joe walked back into the room, he quickly glanced at Jim. Only I hadn’t been looking at Jim. And somehow I hadn’t taken note of Joe’s mannerisms before he pretended to study the whiteboard before him. Apparently, all of our 8th graders were in on the game, but I was not! I was looking in the wrong direction and thus unable to see what was right before me.
I wonder at times if my experience a few weeks ago doesn’t begin to get at why we struggle with the sorts of ‘end-time’ texts that are ours to ponder this week. Of course it is true that you and I don’t live in the same context that the people who first heard these words did. We do not have the same reference points. Either way though, much like those who would have first heard these words, it may be entirely understandable that we might find ourselves ‘looking in the wrong direction’ as the sorts of things Jesus speaks of now begin to unfold. Our attention almost can’t help but be drawn to wars and rumors of wars, to earthquakes and famines. (And I would argue that as people of compassion and good will, this is the right thing. And yet, it is no wonder we tend to turn our focus away from what under girds it all — or from the larger future these events have us all moving towards as we seek to make sense of what is right in front of us.
Oh, I do have to say that I don’t know exactly what to make of lessons like these. Wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and famines have been headlines on the evening news for as long as I have been paying attention. And yet in and through it all? It seems that Jesus is no closer to returning than he was the first time I thought to ponder it. So perhaps, in the end, part of the gift that is ours to receive from words like those in our lesson now is the promise and the certainty that even though we don’t fully understand how, in and through the worst that happens, God is still active — if not in it and through it then in spite of it. Or perhaps words like these call us to simply stand still in the certainty that in fact, no matter what, we are called to always keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, lest we be distracted or misled by others who would claim to be him. Or to be greater than or to hold more power than him.
It’s easy to get distracted, to be sure. All too often, like when I found myself studying an 8th grader’s ‘extraordinary gift’ a few weeks back, I miss the point altogether, with my heart arrested by what is right in front of me. I should have known better then. I should have known he was being helped along by a friend… that there was something behind his ability to do what no one should be able to do.
Maybe, finally, there is a lesson in that for us here as well. Maybe we are simply called to stay curious and open. Perhaps we are called to always keep our hearts and our minds open to what God may be doing. Without a doubt, we are urged now to remember that there is always something greater under girding it all — whatever the future may hold — that gift of God’s love and grace and very presence. Indeed, I imagine that’s what we’re meant to be watching for all along.
- Do you ever find yourself ‘looking in the wrong direction?’ In life? In your life of faith? What has brought your attention back to where it is meant to be?
- How do you make sense of Jesus’ words today? Do you find them startling? Comforting? Hopeful? Despairing?
- What is the good news in a lesson like this one? How would you share that message with others?