An attendance requirement isn’t just about showing up; it requires attending to what is placed before us with proper focus. We need to be present, to focus on what God calls us to, and to pay attention to those around us…
It’s that time of the year when professors like me spell out our classroom policies for the syllabus. You probably recall the deal: course descriptions, textbooks, grading scales, assignment schedules. One section, in particular, is easy to pass over, looking only for the acceptable excuses: the attendance requirement.
Mine usually remains about the same: attendance is important; if you’re sick don’t come and get everyone else sick; if you have a school-related activity, let me know. I also usually allow about a week’s worth of “unexcused absences” that don’t impact a student’s grade. (One of my favorite bits is pleading with students to make these count: “I know life happens outside of this classroom during class time. If you must use your unexcused absences, use them to do something that you’ll tell your grandkids about; don’t use them to sleep in!”)
But what am I really asking for with this attendance requirement? In a way, I’m insisting on the truth of the old adage, “Showing up is eighty-percent of life.” But more than that, I want them to be “present” to the day’s topic, to focus on what I place before them. I could boil it down to a simple, “Pay attention!”
Now if you’ll notice, I employed three metaphors there. “Presence” with the topic is a spatial metaphor, focusing is a visual one, and paying attention is economic. All three of these circle around the point: an attendance requirement isn’t just about showing up; it requires attending to what is placed before us with proper focus.
College courses aren’t the only things—or even the most important things—with attendance requirements. Our lives as followers of Christ come with an attendance policy. After all, Jesus’ law summary of loving God and loving neighbor proves impossible if we can’t pay attention, if we can’t attend, to God and neighbor.
Obviously, we don’t attend when we’re absent, when we aren’t present. We also don’t attend when we’re not focused, when we don’t actually see what is in front of us that needs our attention. Now before we launch into the usual suspects—scrolling through Facebook instead of reading the kids a story, for instance—we can admit that there are times when we need to communicate with people who are far away. We do need to text or get on Facebook or check an email in order to love a distant neighbor. Sometimes, we need to go to a quiet place away from our physical “neighbors” in order to pay attention to the needs of one farther away. The key is to be intentional and wise about these choices because we can only “attend” one thing at a time. Sometimes we need to be on the smartphone; often, we don’t.
If we return to our earlier metaphors, the problem is an economic one. We often think we have enough attention to pay everyone, when in fact we’re overdrawn. We can’t love God and neighbor when we’re spreading our attention too thin, when we’re attempting to “pay” a bit of attention to too many different collectors. Research shows that while many people consider themselves good at multitasking, at “paying attention” to various things at once, in fact, we’re not. We’re not just not good at multitasking: we’re really not multitasking at all. We’re switching tasks rapidly, and in doing so, often losing steam and focus.
To attend we need to focus, we need to pay attention to what needs attention.
Just as my students will face different temptations to be absent, so do we. Entertainment can tempt us to pay attention to our phone or the television when a person in front of us needs our focus. It doesn’t mean these things are bad—there is a place for humorous videos and sporting events, surely—but not when our attendance is required elsewhere. We can also struggle to attend what is in front of us when other avenues give us feelings of importance and significance. For instance, checking work email in case something comes through that “just can’t wait until later” when in fact it can; checking it makes us feel important, irreplaceable. If we’re going to meet the attendance requirement, we need to be honest with ourselves about the temptations to absence and what those temptations really represent for each of us.
“Showing up is eighty-percent of life.” But just like the physical presence in a college course doesn’t ensure success, attendance in life requires more than “showing up.” As followers of Christ, those seeking to love God and love neighbor through the power of the gospel, we need to be present, to focus on what God calls us to, and to pay attention to those around us. Even though sometimes we’ll be absent—sometimes excused, sometimes not—attendance is not optional. Not in the life of the Christian, and not in my class, either.
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