Show up and look alert

November 13th, 2017

Eighty percent of life is showing up. Some give Woody Allen credit for the quip. A Google search will give you a few variants. The word order changes. You’ll find “success” substituted for “life.”

One of my pastoral care mentors taught me her own variant. “Show up and look alert.” That adage speaks to me to this day. And I regularly commend it to my clergy colleagues.

Initially the phrase guided me as I walked with my parishioners through loss. The death of a parent, a spouse, or a child. Suicides and drug overdoses. Diminished mobility from car crashes and falls and strokes. A cancer diagnosis. Divorce. Long-term unemployment. Stalled careers. Dreams unfulfilled.

Loss comes in many forms. Whatever shape it takes, loss leaves grief or regret or remorse or shock or some mixture of these in its wake. No one’s pastoral bag of tricks comes with a magic wand. We cannot make another person’s sorrow vanish.

Instead of fixing things, though, we are able to show up and look alert. Getting ourselves to the right address at the right time is no small thing. But showing up and looking alert serves as shorthand for something far deeper. It refers to compassion. And compassion is rooted in empathy.

Empathy differs from sympathy. We can recognize another person’s pain without involving our whole selves with that person. It’s sort of like saying, “Wow! That’s bad for you. Sure hope it gets better. Let me know what I can do. Thoughts and prayers.” Sympathy does not require that we realize that we’ve been there, too. And we don’t have to be vulnerable to another person’s life just to acknowledge that the person is suffering and offer them a hand.

Connection is at the core of empathy. In empathy, we do more than recognize the ache in another person’s heart. We connect with that person because we’ve been to that dreadful place, too. We say, “I’m in this thing with you. My heart is breaking along with you and, God willing, my heart will eventually rejoice with yours.”

Compassion doesn’t involve making the other person’s pain our own. But being compassionate does mean that we have made ourselves vulnerable to someone else. We have committed to walk with that person through the valley of the shadow of whatever as long as that’s the path the person’s on.

Strictly speaking, I think that’s what love is: showing up and looking alert. Life, as it turns out, is love. If you don’t love, you’re slowly dying inside.

So, what I took initially to be an adage for pastoral care is actually a lesson for all of us. It’s the lesson with which Jesus began his ministry: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.”

Some readers of that passage won’t glean anything like an adage about presence in it. Instead, they hear a dire warning. Maybe even a threat. They interpret Jesus’ words something like this: “Time is short. Judgment is near. Unless you want to burn in Hell, clean up your act and acknowledge Jesus as the Only Way.”

By contrast, I hear something more like this: “The loving presence of God is already near you. All around you. Be open to it. Let go of whatever obscures the divine presence from you or lets you distance yourself from it.”

To put that another way, God’s love is coursing through the people and the animals and the plants and the sunsets and the starry skies and the fuzzy slippers of your everyday life. Show up and look alert.

Jesus makes abundantly clear that this is especially the case in the suffering of others. Paradoxically, when we reach out in compassion, we are not finding God. God is finding us. And the experience of being found by the holy heals our deepest sense of loss. Eventually.

God has already shown up. It’s on us to show up, too. Showing up and looking alert is our spiritual work. Jesus taught us this lesson with a parable that some call the Wise and the Foolish Bridesmaids.

The story goes like this. Ten bridesmaids go out to meet the bridegroom. They don’t know his precise arrival time. Half the women prepared themselves for a lengthy delay. They loaded up on extra oil for their lamps. The other five women brought lamps but no extra oil.

Sure enough, the bridegroom took his own sweet time getting there. The sun set. Lamps were lit. Sleep overcame the women.

At midnight somebody roused the group with the news that the bridegroom was just around the bend. By this time all the lamps were sputtering out.

Five of the bridesmaids reloaded their lamps. Those who had brought no extra oil asked their sisters to share their oil. The well-stocked bridesmaids explained that they hadn’t brought enough to share. So the oil-less women ran frantically to WalMart to get more fuel for their lamps.

The bridegroom arrived while the shoppers were still away. They missed the bridegroom. Missed the wedding. And got barred from the reception.

Let’s remember that parables are not allegories. When Jesus tells a parable, he’s not asking us to draw an analogy between elements in the story to things in world. For instance, you don’t have to assume — you probably shouldn’t assume — that the bridegroom stands for Jesus.

I realize that we’ve all heard interpretations of this parable that turn on the bridegroom being Jesus. Frequently such a reading accompanies the assumption that the Kingdom of Heaven is where believers go after they die. Hell, of course, is the alternative celestial address left for unbelievers. The point of the parable becomes this: Accept Jesus as Lord before it’s too late.

Even if you do mishandle the parable as if it were an allegory, this reading would remain unconvincing to me. But once you commit to hearing the parable as a parable, you’ll come away with some very different messages. Parables are unsettling stories that invite us to rethink some of our basic assumptions.

From the start Jesus tells us that this parable is about the Kingdom. The Kingdom is wherever God’s love is shaking things up and bringing things to new life. So with this parable, Jesus is drawing us into revisiting where we think we will encounter God.

One implication of the story is that the Kingdom is nearer than you think. It’s already on top of you. If you delay, you’ll miss it. It’s right in front of your nose. The child’s need to be loved when showing off a picture she drew at school. A friend’s anxiety masked by his off-putting anger.

No one else can notice this, encounter this, engage this Kingdom for you. I can’t lend you my extra oil. I can’t just tell you about it. You have to be there. The genuine encounter is always personal.

The Kingdom comes in unrepeatable moments. We can be so preoccupied or indifferent or fearful that we simply miss those moments. This is especially true when we encounter another’s wounded soul. Jesus isn’t condemning us for inattentiveness. Instead, he’s helping us see that we’re missing resurrection moments. Moments in which our compassion draws us into new life.

I’ve spent much of my ordained life being present to others in times of loss. Eventually I realized that when I make myself vulnerable to the sorrows of another person, I’m also making myself available to the resurrection; to new, God-given life.

In my compassion for others I see with great clarity that, with every loss, a larger or smaller bit of me has died. When the Kingdom draws near — when God shows up and looks alert — God leaves new life in the divine wake.

This article originally appeared on the author's blog. Reprinted with permission.

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