Do you remember this story? It happened nearly fifteen years ago. Unbeknownst to busy commuters at the L’Enfant Plaza Station in Washington, DC, a person of prominence emerged from the metro. He positioned himself against a wall beside a trash container next to a kiosk, the one that sold tabloids and porn, and lotto tickets. It was easy to look past him. His dress was less than impressive—faded jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt, and a Washington Nationals baseball cap.
Getting out his instrument and setting out his case in case anyone wanted to contribute to the cause, he began to play the violin. It was all part of the background noise as people hustled to their work. What no one noticed was that this was not some wannabe musician whose music screeched like a train scraping on the nearby tracks. He was not butchering Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major or hacking Amazing Grace. Rather, he was performing six classical pieces from Schubert to Bach, masterpieces that have endured for centuries—soaring music befitting cathedrals.
Meanwhile, 1097 people, mostly government bureaucrats, passed by over the next 43 minutes. Some were on cell phones, others were listening to their own music, and all were oblivious to the fact this was not some vagrant whose stage would never expand beyond the street. This was one of the finest classical musicians in the world, an internationally acclaimed virtuoso playing an instrument worth over 3.5 million dollars.
A few tossed in whatever loose change was resting in their pockets. Some paused momentarily, but most hurried on. A curious three-year-old stopped to look, but his mother quickly pushed him along. Hardly anyone realized that here was greatness. None were aware that it was all part of an experiment conducted by The Washington Post, asking the question, “In a banal setting, at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?” Would people notice grandeur if it is not wrapped up in all the trimmings of concert halls, white ties and tails, and lavish wealth?
Do you ever wonder if God occasionally conducts the same experiment? He seems to have a penchant for stepping into our ordinary settings incognito. Will we notice? Consider that very first Christmas. He did not strut unto a stage in the world’s greatest capital to announce his appearance. Instead, he quietly entered a nondescript setting of a feeding trough in a backwater town called Bethlehem. He stooped to be raised by a poor family in a powerless nation stripped of national pride, made his way to desert wells and leprosy camps, and traveled into the depths of common humanity, offering words of life, and doing works befitting of God.
This is God. Without making an announcement he expresses something of his wonder, his wisdom, and his majesty. Can we discern? Will the divine transcend?
John, who wrote one of the historical accounts of Jesus, had a keen eye for incongruity. In his introduction, John observed, “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him” (1:10). The One who was before time and space, the One who was with God in a face-to-face relationship, the One who holds everything together, and the One who brings the light that dispels the darkness (vv 1-11)—was not comprehended. This tragic irony, as Paul Duke puts it, burns through the book with progressive intensity—
-in his hometown, people were oblivious—“Isn’t this the carpenter?”
-no one noticed his miraculous work at the wedding feast in Cana
-religious experts were, at best, curious
-the woman at the well might have assumed he was some single man hitting on her
-the paralytic completely missed who it was that healed him, throwing him under the bus
-the crowd assumed he was their next meal-ticket
-his brothers viewed him with suspicion, someone whose public gatherings required an intervention
Things haven’t changed. The tragic irony keeps burning through our lives. Shifting channels the other night, I caught a scene in a sitcom where a man sits back with his eyes on his beer and exclaims, “The reason for the season.” Laugh track.
I would like to believe it isn’t so, but with each Christmas season, I can’t help but wonder if we as a culture are becoming more and more obtuse. Like commuters at a rail station, we are much too absorbed in ourselves and our agendas to notice who is playing the music. We miss God’s presence because we are too distracted. We are like travelers in an airport preoccupied with our devices, our twerking minds no longer able to give attention to things that matter—like God.
In the book, Stolen Focus, writer Johann Hari describes our culture as “attentional pathogenic.” Sustained focus is becoming near impossible. Powerful forces, including Big Tech, are pouring acid on our attention every day. We are less able to go deep. We are no longer aware, and this goes against the ways of God. He seems to delight in working undercover, leaving anonymous notes, and sneaking up when we are not looking. As Willimon puts it, “He manages to be unfathomable, deep, ungraspable, and yet oddly close, and intimate.”
Recognizing his ways and experiencing his very presence requires stillness and unbroken attention. You can’t multitask with God. I know this to be true. Looking back on my spiritual journey, it was on a morning walk, ears open to God, that he spoke words from Proverbs that changed my whole trajectory. On a night in the middle of Nigeria, teaching the poorest of the poor in a most desperate place, God showed up. In the stillness of the dunes of Holland, God spoke some of his clearest words. When I stop to ponder creation, the theatre of God’s glory, he speaks. Like those on the road to Emmaus, I am often unaware until he is suddenly gone, leaving his words to burn in my soul.
Maybe it is time we stop, pause, rest, and turn things off. We just might hear his music this Christmas.