There’s nothing quite like a fist fight to wake you up. Maybe I’d better explain.
My friend Jeff and I worked the night shift at a data processing center one summer during college. We sat for mind-numbing hours entering credit card information from 11:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. Yes, this was ages ago, and credit transactions happen in a very different way these days.
The tedium of the work would have lulled me into a stupor even in broad daylight. But I never made the transition to nocturnal living. So every night I repeatedly nodded off at the computer terminal, counting every agonizingly slow minute until lunch break.
At 3:00 a.m. Jeff and I would hop in his car and zip to the nearby Waffle House. The coffee was awful, and out of sleepy desperation I still downed as much of it as I could hold.
One night we noticed a couple of guys grabbing breakfast after a night at the disco. They sported John Travolta Saturday-Night-Fever haircuts, wore 70’s era polyester clothes, and their mostly unbuttoned shirts revealed their bare chests. Jeff and I slipped into an adjacent booth.
As I was ordering, one of the men said loudly, “I can kick anybody’s a** in this place.” Jeff and I slid a bit lower into our seats while the guy kept talking about his fighting skills.
This went on for a couple minutes. Then a short, wiry fellow in jeans and a white undershirt walked up and said, “So you think you can kick my a**? Let’s go.”
The disco guy laughed with obvious contempt, stood up, and swaggered to the door. He had at least four inches and fifty pounds on the man in the t-shirt.
Everybody watched in disbelief as they faced off right in front of the diner’s big plate glass window. The smaller guy moved like a Golden Gloves boxer. With three or four blindingly fast shots he took the bigger man down and left him unconscious on the sidewalk.
Well, that woke me up. For the rest of the night.
I think about this incident from time to time. In part because it was so bizarre. But more importantly, because it taught me a lesson that I’m still learning.
Much of life is routine and even mundane. It’s possible for us to sleepwalk through our ordinary comings of goings, our everyday chores and responsibilities.
And then, something unexpected or threatening or shocking rouses us from our slumber. A knock at the door, a phone call, the cry of a child, the words from a doctor’s lips.
Suddenly, we see. We see what’s been there all along and what we have so easily let slip by. Our life. Our fragile, tender, very human life. And God is reaching out to us from the depths of that life at every instant. What is missing is our awareness.
That’s one of the key messages of the birth, life, and death of Jesus. God reaches out to us—gives the gift of divine life to us—right where we are.
And receiving that gift permeates life’s unremarkable, terrifying, tender, joyful, and tedious moments with meaning. Makes this life—the life we actually have—worth living.
This is why Jesus said, “Keep awake.” (Mark 13:37) Beautiful, terrible, common, and head-scratching things are happening every day. God is loving us in and through them. And we are truly alive—eternally alive—when we respond to that love. That’s what it means to be awake.