Twenty students are enrolled in my course. But only nineteen are here. I check the roll, call the name of the missing student, and listen to the nervous silence. I call the name again just in case, because once when this happened – about three years ago – it was because the poor guy in the back was asking someone else what textbook he needed and didn’t hear me say his name.
No one answers.
Sometimes #20 shows up halfway through lecture, careening in mid-sentence and disrupting an entire row of murmuring students as they struggle to an empty seat. Sometimes #20 shows up after class, mumbling apologies and excuses – a broken car, a recalcitrant child, an alarm clock on the fritz – and asks for what they missed.
More often than not, #20 never shows at all.
And I wonder about that missing student who paid and registered and went through all the rigmarole of picking a class…only to turn away at the last second. I wonder because even for some of my students who are present, life is hard. I teach mothers with dark circles under their eyes whose minds are half with the lesson and half with the children they just left with their husbands or at day care. I teach students who have been kicked out of their homes by families who disagree with their lifestyle choices. I teach students recovering from drug addiction. I teach students struggling with break-ups and bad grades, skin problems and friendship dramas.
What was it that kept #20 away?
I don’t know, and I often can’t find out. If they remain on the roll and don’t drop the class, my powers are limited to a few courtesy emails. “Hi,” I tell them, “you’re enrolled in my class, but you haven’t attended. To avoid receiving a failing grade in the course, please drop as soon as possible.” I contact the staff in charge of retention, and they send emails, too.
Privacy regulations and the guidelines of my job mean that I can’t investigate into the matter any more than that. But those of us who are believers and who notice the absent in our congregations and in our communities need not be bound by such restrictions. It is our job, in fact, to look for who is not there. It is our job to seek out the disappeared and the vanishing. It is our responsibility not just to note that people are gone, but to find out why and to extend help where it might be needed.
Look for the lost, Scripture encourages us. I would tell you that sometimes this means, look for the absent. Because “absent,” as I have learned from teaching, means more than “not present.” Absent means life is holding me back. Absent means I forgot. Absent means I don’t care any more. Absent means I have different priorities now.
If I could, I’d go and I would find my missing student #20 and I would ask them, “Why didn’t you show up?” Maybe they’d have a reason, even if it was one I disagreed with. Maybe they’d need help. Maybe I’d find that a tragedy or a hurt was holding them back. Either way, at least I’d know. And then they would know that someone had cared enough to look for them.
People drop in and out of our lives every day. I know that it’s impossible to keep track of them all. But when we see a gap where a person should be – when we know someone should be with us, and isn’t – the least we can do is ask after them. If you’re in a church or a Christian community and someone has gone missing from the group, don’t just assume it’s fine, or that they’ll be back, or that they must have a reason. Ask. Seek.
Because it’s easy to notice someone’s presence when they’re right there in a room with you. In fact, it’s rude not to notice. But it’s much harder to notice someone’s absence and to act on that. It takes more time, and concern, and care. It takes a certain amount of initiative and engagement to reach out.
And that is precisely why it matters. Sometimes the gesture – the admission that you see someone, that they matter, even when they aren’t there – means more than anything else. If a sparrow cannot fall without God’s notice, how can a person vanish without ours?
Note: This past week my blogging schedule was disrupted by my move to a new home. I’ll be back on track this week. Thanks for your patience!