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Have you been paying attention?

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The challenge of staying awake in our age of disruption, conflict and chaos.

By Greg Hewson.

*Spoiler alert: blog not related to the TV quiz show of the same name.

Keep awake - for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.
– Mark 13:35-37

On March 31, 1968, at the Washington National Cathedral, Martin Luther King Jr. preached his final Sunday sermon. Four days later he was dead. The title of that sermon was "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution," and it is a good reminder as we reflect on Jesus' instruction to "keep awake".

King began by telling the story of Rip Van Winkle, who went to sleep seeing a sign of King George and awoke to a sign of George Washington. He had slept through a revolution. The story, said King, tells us that "one of the great liabilities of life is that all too many people find themselves living amid a great period of social change, and yet they fail to develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses, that the new situation demands. They end up sleeping through a revolution."

King identified three great revolutions taking place in the world: a technological revolution, a revolution in weaponry, and a human rights revolution. And, he said, "whenever anything new comes into history it brings with it new challenges and new opportunities." Then he spoke of several challenges, including eradicating racial injustice and poverty, and seeking peace instead of choosing war.

Today’s challenges

More than fifty years on from Dr King’s passing, the challenges which confront the world are as confronting as ever. For two and a half years now, the zoonotic disease COVID-19 has caused health, social and economic carnage, the likes of which haven’t been seen for a century. It’s hard to imagine a part of our world that hasn’t been impacted in some way.

Beyond COVID-19, the unfolding climate crisis is causing havoc and devastation. Recent catastrophic flooding in Pakistan illustrates what has been spoken of for some time: that climate change will affect us all, but it is people living in the world’s poorest communities who are being hardest hit, despite contributing least to the problem and being the least resourced to adapt.

At the same time, we are seeing a hunger crisis unfold across the world, the likes of which we have not seen in over a century. Across Somalia, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Yemen, Afghanistan and in many other countries, the complex mix of climate change, conflict and the COVID-19 pandemic have left 50 million people on the brink of famine.

This is a severe and worsening crisis. In Somalia alone, an estimated 7 million people are likely to face acute food insecurity between June and September this year. Without immediate therapeutic food and care, almost 8 million children under 5 are at risk of death from malnutrition – with the number rising by the minute

Have you been paying attention wake up

Staying Awake

It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed and so ‘distant’ from these global issues. For many of us, avoidance and distraction are our first line of defence in trying to cope and scramble to keep our own ‘house in order’. Our ability to ‘stay awake’ and pay attention to even more issues of suffering is just too much.

I was thinking about this struggle earlier this week and I remembered a conversation I’d had years ago with a good friend of mine who was a chaplain at the former Pentridge Prison in Melbourne. He told me one or two stories about his work there, and one that has stuck with me was the amount of hours that prisoners sleep. He said that a common trait amongst prisoners, especially those serving a long sentence, is for them to sleep long hours, like a child. His reflection was that sleeping was a key way for them to cope with their situation, to get through it.

Our invitation

The passage from Mark 13:35-37 comes at the end of Jesus speaking to his disciples about the future destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Jesus points to the potential physical and political costs involved for those who seek to stand with him, and about the end of the age. It is solid stuff, enough to deter even the most ardent supporter from following in Christ’s footsteps.

Right at the end of it all comes this warning to ‘keep awake’. Not to be put to sleep by the ways of the world that seduce, distract and lull your focus. But to keep awake, remain vigilant in the work that Jesus has begun and the work that he has called us as his followers to complete.

Paul, too, assures the community of Rome that "you know the time; it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep" (Romans 13:11). Today, in the midst of the great ‘revolutions’ that are disrupting and challenging so much of our world, we too are drawn to these questions – what does it mean for us to ‘keep awake’?

For Reflection

To finish, here are some questions you might like to take some time to reflect upon and consider.

  • Are we asleep to God and to seeing the world through God’s eyes?
  • Are we asleep to the signs of God’s kingdom coming into the world?
  • Are we distracted by what Paul calls the ‘works of flesh’, or what we might call ‘the things of this world?’
  • And finally, are we asleep to the cries of the poor and the groaning of creation, both in our own communities and around the world?

Because if we are, we need to, as Jesus suggests, Wake Up.