Recently, I’ve been thinking about eternal life and its implications, as reflected within Lent and Easter.
In Genesis 3, YHWH removes our access to Eternal Life after Adam and Eve eat of the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” Yet, Jesus’ death is presented as the perfect sacrifice for our salvation and reconciliation with God: a promise that we too shall be resurrected, someday. So I wonder, is Eternal Life a good or bad thing; and how does it differ from being resurrected, reconciled and saved?
One implication of Eternal Life is that time no longer matters. For someone who has Eternal Life, no day is any more, or less, valuable than any other. They have unlimited time to complete unfinished business, correct mistakes, or finish their “bucket list.” So, what value would any particular day (or century) have for them? Would love or friendship be valued when time is of no concern?
Many writers have thought about Eternal Life…
Jonathan Swift in “Gulliver’s Travels” imagines an immortal race called the Struldbrugs. They live forever, but do not have eternal youth: their minds and bodies eventually deteriorate to the point where every breath is torment – but they cannot die. Immortality for a Struldbrug is a curse, not a gift.
In “The Lord of The Rings”, J.R.R. Tolkien presents a race with eternally youthful bodies: the Elves. Yet immortality is a burden for them, too: They are a people not quite in tune with the world. A people whose bodies do not age, but who carry profound sadness because they know everything they create, everything they love, will eventually pass away – and they cannot stop it. They are doomed to outlive everything around them, and cannot escape from their past to live fully in the present.
Science Fiction author Robert Heinlein imagined the achievement of immortality through technology. In his novel “Time Enough For Love” is Lazarus Long, who is two and a half millennia old. (Or so, but who’s counting?) A man who is medically “rejuvenated” whenever old age afflicts him. But Lazarus is tired of life. Like the elves, Lazarus has seen everything he creates or loves pass away.
Heinlein also points out that our brains are not infinite: If we live long enough, we run out of room for new memories. Even if that weren’t a problem, our memories get cluttered and disorganized with age. (In one of my favorite passages, Lazarus complains about hunting all morning for a book, only to realize he’d put it down a century ago.) Through Lazarus we see that even with youthful bodies, our minds (and spirits) will still age.
Periodically, Lazarus has his mind “washed” of old memories to make room for new ones, but this raises a new question: what good is immortality when memory no longer links you with the person you once where? Immortality is a burden for Lazarus because he outlives his youth, and because of the broken connection between his present and his past.
Mortality makes time precious: every day is a gift that cannot be recaptured. The flip side of this is that we cannot go back and make different choices when things don’t turn out as we hoped. We cannot choose to avoid the pain that is the inevitable result of the choice to love.
In the end, we need to ask ourselves whether it is worth it: to live a life like that of Lazarus, or the elves, or the Struldbrugs, or the timeless existence Adam and Eve had before they ate of the fruit.
Ash Wednesday helps us remember how ephemeral life is; that all good things in our lives, including our own existence, will eventually come to an end. Matthew warns us that all of our treasures will eventually be consumed by moths and rust, everything we have will eventually be stolen by time itself.
Thick darkness. Moths and rust. Nothing will remain.
As if that isn’t enough, David lays it on even more heavily in Psalm 51, saying “Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.”
So, not only will everything end, but sin and corruption are in our lives from the very beginning. We’re in a game that was fixed from the start. We can’t win. We cannot escape the trap of life.
It seems so hopeless.
And yes, this is one message of Ash Wednesday and Lent: all things must end, even life itself. Nothing that matters to us: nothing we love, nothing we treasure, nothing we create, will last forever. All of it will end. Worse still, even before we get to the end of our lives, we will all experience hard times – failure, illness, disease, pain, loss.
This is the great question Lent confronts us with: why go to all the trouble of living, of dealing with all that pain, when everything, in the end, will come to nothing?
In other words, why have faith? … What good is it? … Why bother?
Why not just go out – as many have done – and live life to its fullest? Why not pursue pleasure to the exclusion of all else? Why not hide from the pain of our existence? Why not just use it all up, since it will all come to nothing anyway? Use friends, use drugs, use possessions, use this world, use all that we encounter, to escape, to run away from the fear and the pain, to hide from the thick darkness that will eventually, and inevitably, overwhelm us. A darkness so thick that we can never escape once it ensnares us.
The trumpet is blowing, Joel’s alarm has been sounded. We see that impenetrable darkness approaching, and we know we will not survive.
But Lent also provides us with an answer.
David wrote that our God desires truth in our inward being, and asks the Lord to teach him wisdom in his secret heart. He goes on to say “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” He ends the Psalm with these words, “For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give you a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit. A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
Is God seeking to break us? Does God want to trample us into the mud of eternity and leave us there? Is God simply going to cast us aside from his presence once he’s done with us, like we throw aside a toy once we’ve outgrown it?
I think not.
Running away from reality does not change reality. Hiding from the pain, uncertainty and corruption of this world will not change the fact that we have to deal with it. Hiding from the realities of our existence, from the inevitability of pain and failure in this life, from the inescapability of that thick darkness to come, only means we are dealing with it poorly; that we are failing at the only challenge in life that has any meaning whatsoever; because that challenge is ourselves.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus warns us of this. Those who trumpet their faith, those who seek to show others how Holy they really are, are running from reality. They are not dealing with their own brokenness. Instead, they are competing, trying to put on a robe of sanctity and piety that will raise them up in the eyes of all those around them. They are using Holiness to run from dealing with themselves, using it as a mask to hide from their own insecurities and fear, as a tool to gain advantage in a race they cannot win. They are not being more Holy! They are running from themselves, from their own mortality, and from God. They are seeking to magnify themselves through sacrifice, which is the exact opposite of what these scriptures tell us must be done.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit.
God wants us to sacrifice that idol of self, that cancer of self interest, that need to preserve ourselves at all costs. Because, as all of those authors I mentioned earlier also said, trying to preserve what we are is futile. This world will not allow it. Even if we could succeed at such a thing, we would be preserving the self of now at the cost of forever losing what we shall become, what God wants us to be.
Our broken spirits allow that cancer of self preservation at all costs to drain away. A broken spirit makes room for that clean heart, that new and right spirit that David sings of. By acknowledging our inability to change ourselves, the impossibility of escaping the trap of life on our own, we are giving God the keys to our souls. We are enabling God to work within us, to plant within us that joy of Salvation, that we might sing with joy of our deliverance and declare His praise.
On Ash Wednesday we remember and celebrate that we are dust, and that it is to dust we shall return. We confront our mortality, our fear, our brokenness, and ask God to work in us.
Lent has begun: a time of sorrow, a time of repentance, a time to renounce the transient pleasures of this world. An opportunity to look deep within ourselves, to throw aside the pretensions and distractions that prevent us from confronting ourselves. It is a season where we take a long, hard and uncompromising look at who and what we really are.
It is a time of sorrow, a time of mourning, for we are mourning the loss of what we think we are. We are sacrificing the last and greatest idol we all must confront, the idol of ourselves, sacrificing it on the altar of God’s love, forgiveness and compassion; asking only that God create in us a clean heart; because the only treasure worth having is the treasure of our relationship with God. As Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there is your heart also.”
If God is our treasure, then God has our hearts. God, the eternal, the omnipotent, the one who will never forget us nor leave us in the thick darkness. God, in whom we will live and move and have our being, for all eternity.
So, while I am not eager to come to the end of my mortal existence, and know that the end will probably include pain and suffering, the tradeoff is that I have a life that is worth living. A life where I can have a relationship with God, and with you.
Lent’s message is that our life is a gift given by a God who wants a meaningful relationship with us. And to be meaningful and valuable, it must be a gift that cannot escape time. Our mortality is a gift, part of God’s plan, because if our lives were never-ending, relationships – including our relationship with God – would have no value. Love would have no value!
This does not eliminate or even alleviate the pain and hardships of life, but knowing that mortality is necessary for love and life to have value, and that it is all part of God’s plan, gives me the strength I need to endure such things when they come. This knowledge also gives me the ability to appreciate and rejoice-in, and the determination to protect, the beauty and love that are in this world; and appreciate the beauty and richness of our existence.
Our hope for salvation is built upon the reality of God’s love for us: an eternal, overwhelming, fierce love that will never forget us. Since God is determined to love us for all time, then we have time enough for love, too. Love is the only treasure which time can neither destroy nor steal from us.
Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, February 22, 2015; (First Sunday of Lent).
Joel 2:1,12-13 (NRSV) Blow the Trumpet in Zion!
Psalm 51 (excerpts, NRSV) Create in Me a Clean Heart O God!
Matthew 6:1-6,16-21 (NRSV) Jesus Condemns the Hypocrites
Also referenced: Genesis 3 (NRSV) The Fall of Adam and Eve
Copyright (c) 2015, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)