Those Small Eternities

Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.

-Frederick Buechner

At the end of my freshman year, a group of my friends and I decided to get together to watch the sun rise upon our last finals week for the year. Climbing on top of a building, we spread out blankets on which to sit.

And we waited, listening for something. I can’t remember what.

I, a New England guy, had turned toward the city, half expecting the sun to rise from the ocean like in years gone by. But that was then, in a far-off place, overlooking a far-off ocean.

The stars had disappeared from overhead some minutes prior. All that was left was a navy quilt overhead, threatening to suffocate those beneath its crushing weight. Beneath us was a bed of gravel which crunched as we shifted our weight. I picked some up. Tossing one at a time, I counted the minutes as they passed.

The sky lightened to a periwinkle. A small, hot ember peaked over the ridgeline of mountains behind me. And for a moment, I felt as though I had fallen through a mirror into a place where everything was all turned around.

“The sun,” one of my friends whispered as they tapped me on the back. “You’re going to miss it!”

I dropped the stones and, turning toward the mountains, I watched, awestruck.

Church tradition holds that the apostle John saw a glimpse of heaven on one of these days while exiled on the island of Patmos. At one point, he says, enraptured, “the twelve gates were twelve pearls; each one of the gates was a single pearl. And the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass.”[1] I honestly wonder what he saw, sometimes. Other times, I doubt whether he saw a city at all. Either way, I don’t think I’m too worried whether that was the case or not.

What does it mean for something to be golden? To be literally made of gold? Or something else?

The Romantic poet William Blake once wrote in the opening lines of a poem of his:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
and a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour…[2]

In the moments of trying to get from one place to another, I think we forget that even our work habits influence how we see the world and our faith. Perhaps the things of greatest truth, goodness, and beauty seem dull compared to the sensationalism we are used to.

Recently, I stopped a friend of mine in the hall who looked troubled. Asking what the matter was, they said, with a blank expression on their face, “I don’t know if I know what heaven is anymore.”

“Why do you say that?” I asked.

“Because if heaven is where God is,” they started, “And God is all around us, wouldn’t that mean that heaven is all around us, too?”

I shrugged. “What do you think?”

“Well, I don’t know what to think! What would that do to my understanding of the afterlife?”

“Something, I’m guessing.”

“No, yeah.” They said. “But I’ve been spending so much time thinking about how it’ll be like to leave this place after I die. But this will, in a sense, keep me grounded.”

I raised my eyebrow at the pun.

“If heaven is here,” they asked, “Why can’t we experience it?”

“A number of reasons, I think, but I think the first reason is because we’re always looking down and too busy to pay attention to what’s going on around us.”

“Perhaps if we do,” they thought aloud, “we might be able to see the small eternities around us in the every day. And we might just realize how precious everything actually is.”

“Sounds poetic,” I said, “I might just borrow that.”

They laughed.

I found myself in the same place that I had been with my friends that last full week of school during my freshman year the other day. The sun, however, was setting. And I was alone.

It’s been a while since I’ve slowed down to watch the sun disappear beneath the distant waves of the Pacific. Most days it seems to sink beneath a dust cloud or squeeze between skyscrapers. And most days, I’ve found myself always on the go to do something. Or be somewhere.

But this day, I found myself near the close of my junior year with no one to be with and nowhere to go. And the day had been pleasant enough that I felt at ease and sat down to watch the sun sink lower in the sky.

Here and there, birds wished each other good night as they found their homes in which to rest. And as the sun began to disappear beneath the horizon, it shot out orange-gold tendrils of light into the oncoming darkness. Squinting as I faced the dying sun, I traced the inroads that the light had made with my finger and felt the breeze on my face.

“Streets of gold, eh?” I chuckled to myself. “Good one, John.”

Perhaps it isn’t so much that there will be literal streets of gold or mansions for the average believer that John was getting at. Perhaps it is that, when heaven is united fully with earth and all things are made new, perhaps we can glance at a tree and see, maybe for the first time, the full splendor of God that had been present all along.

Soon, the sun had all but disappeared. And as it vanished beneath the horizon, I heard crickets composing their nightly performances somewhere. The birds had settled down for the night. I yawned.

Grabbing my jacket, I turned to leave. But before I did, I reached down and picked up a single pebble. Studying it, I placed it in my pocket and began walking back home.

“Right, well, I better get settled in, then.”

[1] Rev. 21:21, ESV.

[2] William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence.” The Poetry Foundation. Accessed March 26, 2017. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/43650

Urban Clods

Late one Wednesday night a few weeks ago, I ran into a professor of mine on campus. He was headed home after staying to work on a project of his. His satchel was slung over his shoulder, coat tucked under his other arm.

“Oh!” he started, stepping backward to avoid colliding with me as I appeared around the corner. “What are you still doing here?”

I had been taking a film class which met for three hours each week on Wednesdays.

“Film? You haven’t gone and changed majors on me, have you?”

I laughed and shook my head. “Nah, man. I just think learning to watch films well is important to ministry majors. Staying relevant, you know?”

He raised an eyebrow, “Oh?”

I shrugged. “Film is able to engage people in an experience where they are forced to wrestle with something that they might be otherwise closed off to.”

“How so?”

“Film is the everyday American’s rendition of story. But more than that,” I continued, “I think we all need film because movies explore dimensions of human brokenness which we wouldn’t be exposed to in the first place.”

My professor smiled as he scratched his chin. “And why would that be important?”

“Because,” I said, pausing to mull over my thoughts, “Because when we are made aware of another element of the human condition, we become aware of a new depth of significance of the Gospel. When we claim that Jesus paid it all in our worship, we don’t realize its full implications. We can spend the rest of lives figuring out what that means.”

What does it actually mean that Jesus paid it all?

What is it?

Spring Break has recently settled over my university’s campus. The faculty, staff, and students have gone their own separate ways. As for me, I found myself as part of a team of other ministry-minded people.

The LA Dream Center is a volunteer-driven organization focused on meeting the needs of the city. It finds its home in a renovated hospital on top of a hill on the outskirts of downtown Los Angeles. Off to one side, it overlooks Echo Park. Stretching off into the distance runs the 101, cars scuttling along its length like ants far into the distance.

We found ourselves on the roof of the Dream Center to have a look at the community that it serves. Beneath, cars crawled toward the horizon between rows of houses. Overhead, a single cloud glided by in a stupor. Every so often a breeze would pick up, carrying with it smells and sounds from the city below.

I found myself standing alone next to the Dream Center sign. Further down the roof, the tour guide that our group was with was running through the history of the organization. I could barely hear her.

Some time passed before I felt a tug on my sleeve. As I turned, a familiar voice spoke. “How are you feeling returning to the Dream Center?”

I turned away from the ledge. Behind me was a friend who I first met at the Dream Center when we both were taking the class last year. She, another friend, and I had returned as assistants of a sort, helping our professor facilitate the class for the others.

I took off the sunglasses I had been wearing. “I- I’m not sure. To be honest, half the time I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing. The other, I feel like something’s off. Something’s missing.”

“Our friends?”

Squinting in the sunlight, I yawned. “Perhaps.”

“I miss them.”

“I know. I do too.”

“Fellowship,” writes Brenda Salter McNeil, “Truly getting to know and bond with people in an intimate and life-giving way, comes from being on mission together.” William Blake once wrote a poem on how the notion of the concept of fellowship and love can change based simply on the social location which one grew up.

We tend to remain pebbles in the current of life when we do not allow the circumstances of our life to form us. Blake’s notion that one’s definition will change based upon time or place—being either in a slow-moving stream or continually crushed underfoot—is also true to life. We will remain rocky and inhospitable to others if we don’t witness the adversity which others experience.

Streams do not demand of pebbles a fundamental change in nature – they can afford to think that the world revolves around them. Clods of clay, on the other hand, used to be small pebbles long ago but were made subject to forces which ground them down and reformed them into what they find themselves today. Clods have experienced what brokenness and pain feel like, and so they are more prone to be able to serve others out of the experience that they are not the most important thing around.

The Apostle Paul once hit on something similar when he mentioned that, to keep from becoming proud, he was given a thorn in his flesh to torment him. Even after begging God three times to remove it from him, Paul remarked that God replied by telling him “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.”[1] Amid brokenness and weakness, we find that we become stronger by realizing our dependencies upon others. We are not as self-sufficient as we think we are.

Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk from the 20th century, noted that “Only the man who has had to face despair is really convinced that he needs mercy […] A life that is without problems may literally be more hopeless than one that always verges on despair.”[2] Pebbles in streams do not realize their need for grace and only focus on their own desires. If they have no recognition of their hunger for grace, why would they seek it out in the first place?

Clods crushed under the foot of cattle, however, do.

I signed up to return to the Dream Center partially out of a notion that the experience would be the same. That the people and places and food would be the same. That I would get to play a part in reproducing it.

I thought that the experience was static to a certain extent. That what I paid for last time would be what I would get this time around.

But I’m always reminded that if I wanted to create reproducible experiences with little margin for error, I signed up for the wrong field. Ministry is not a hard science. When we show up to a neighborhood to pick up trash or play with kids or hand out food on behalf of the Dream Center we open ourselves up to something greater than what can be seen within the petri dish and the microscope.

I think we need outreach events as much as we like to watch movies; when we are placed in unfamiliar circumstances we can resort to ducking behind our defenses like Blake’s pebble. That, or we learn to embrace our insecurities and weaknesses like the clods we were meant to be.

Like movies, service opens us up to challenge our preconceived notions in order to replace them accordingly.

My professor muttered something to himself before starting back toward his car. “Someone once said that there is not one square inch in the whole domain of human existence which Christ does not cry ‘Mine.’”

“But sir!” I protested, “What does that mean practically?”

As he reached the door at the end of the corridor, he lifted his hand in a wave. “To be honest, tell me when you find out. Spring Break’s in a few weeks. Have a great one – and don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.” And with that, he disappeared into the evening air. The door swung closed. Silence settled over the campus once more.

 

[1] 2 Cor. 12:7-10, ESV.

[2] Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1983), 21-22.