I started observing how people exhibit awareness of their surroundings years ago during a midwinter consulting trip to Alabama where I was picked up at the airport by clients and driven into town. It was cold and rainy. The car was full. The driver was undeterred by the rain and saw no reason to use the wipers. It didn’t take long for the windows to fog over as well, but that didn’t bother him either. With near zero visibility, he sped down the road as if he had x-ray vision. I asked him about it. He was a bit surprised. He simply hadn’t noticed. That started my informal decades long study of environmental awareness, by which I mean awareness of the environment in one’s immediate vicinity.
I saw some of that yesterday. It was raining hard, but more than half of the cars coming from the other direction were not using wipers at all. The ditches are sometimes filled with cars of drivers who were unaware that the roads were icy, and multi-car accidents are caused by drivers unaware that they cannot see in the fog. But the roads are only one venue. Consider the loud cellphone users who are not rude people but simply unaware that they are intruding on the environment around them. The same goes for those having conversations in quiet places such as the theater or church. Speaking of church; good, friendly, hospitable folk express total surprise that someone new was there. They are simply unaware. My work means that I sometimes go into the homes of others at unexpected times where I encounter residents who are simply unaware that the floors are dirty, the garbage is spilling over, or the tub has needed cleaning for at least a year. We can be mindlessly unaware of the poverty in our own community, the abuse going on in the house next door, the hurt in a friend’s voice, the child’s cry for help, or someone’s desire to know more about God.
The examples seem endless, and I don’t think it has to be a matter of rudeness, ignorance or stupidity. It more often has to do with a simple lack of awareness of one’s surroundings. That lack of awareness is the preface to the age old question: What were they thinking!? Surprisingly enough, there is a theological point to all of this.
Being aware of your environment, of what is going on around you, is a part of what means to follow Christ. Jesus led a life of awareness. He was always and everywhere fully present to those around him and to the place where he was. It is part of what enabled him to bring the kingdom of God into the lives of others. We can do that also, at least some of the time. None of us can be fully aware all the time. but we can do a good deal better than we do. I have a reputation for being a bit absent minded, but it has more to do with where I left the keys or a book. Now and then, deep in thought about something, I’ve found myself walking a block past the place to which I was going. Eyesight and hearing can set limits on how much awareness is possible. So can cultural myopia and lack of education. We have our limitations and moments, but, as disciples of Jesus Christ, we can be, we must be, more intentional about being aware of what is going on around us, more aware of the nearness of the kingdom that is at hand, more aware that it is through us that the kingdom is made known to others.