Thursday, December 28, 2017

A New Year, Today and Forever


In a few days we confront the start of a new year. The five thousand trillion metric tons of oxygen, silicon, aluminum, and iron we call home will have arrived at that same place it did 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 46 seconds ago, orbiting the raging inferno of hydrogen and helium that gives us life. We will wake to it that morning, or perhaps greet it late the night before with a glass of champagne, and we will reflect on these last days and resolve to meet the next ones a bit better from the journey.

I have never been one for New Years resolutions. In part, it's the immensity and arbitrariness of the factors involved. The universe is big and unquantifiable, and this makes my declarations that, this year, I will shed 10 pounds and a bad habit seem a bit silly. In another part, it's because I'm tired of trying. As trite as those goals seem, I also usually discover that I have failed to keep the ones I made last year right around the same time I'm making new ones. My resolutions and the planet's orbit have a common circular pattern.

This year, as I brace for 12 o'clock - or, let's be honest, as I sleep through it, far too weary from three children and travel and the insanity of the holidays to wait up just to mark 736,709 (give or take) midnights since Jesus was born - let me suggest that, rather than our annual routines, there are two other measures of time which I find more spiritually helpful.


One is "today." Scripture has an immediacy to how it views life which we, with our 5-year plans and 401(k)s, find foreign.It's all over the pages of the Bible. "Give us this day our daily bread," the Lord teaches us to pray. (Matthew 6:11) Not "give us bread for the rest of our lives," but our bread for today. Provide for what we need right now, in this moment.

The more we lose our focus on our daily bread, the more anxiety and uncertainty creep in. As much as I plan and work and worry, the year to come is far too big a unit for me to handle. Jesus recognizes this, reminding us later in that same chapter of Matthew, "Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble." (Matthew 6:34) Today has enough problems - adding tomorrow's threatens our undoing.

This focus on the present is also necessary because it recognizes the limitations of our resolve. Transformation is not an annual activity; it rests in the moment to moment. We will rise, and we will fall, and we must rise again. Yet Scripture promises us, in these daily struggles and failures, that we have grace to begin anew. "The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning." (Lamentations 3:22-23a) Inasmuch as our pursuit of growth is a circle, it is a circle far tighter than that of our planet. It runs from the bed we stumble out of back to its covers as we stumble back in. Our hope is that, because of God's forgiveness and love, we get a fresh start each day when we rise. Every day we fail in some ways, yet every day we are able to start again.

So the day is one biblical unit of time I find helpful; the other, running all the way to the other end of the spectrum, is eternity. If Scripture is to be believed, we are everlasting beings. Absolutely, today matters. This life matters, but it is not the sum of things.

I have perhaps 60 more years on earth. It might be far less - I was recently off on a rabbit trail reading about spontaneous combustion, and it occurs to me I might burst into flames as I write those words, my claim proved to be a charred irony. Maybe it's longer - the optimists tell me I'll live to be 120, although 60 years ago those same optimists promised me flying cars and a job where I only had to work 10 hours a day pushing a button making sprockets.

But let's say 60 years. This morning I did 60 push-ups. I read for 60 minutes. 60 is not a particularly large number, and while it still feels a long way off, on those rare moments when I gaze into the abyss, it seems far too close. There is this claim by some that mortality is meant to give us a sense of urgency. Fair enough. But that urgency is at least offset by the sense of futility it also causes. In less decades than I have fingers, I'll be food for worms. Eat and drink, for fifteen elections from now I will die.

Eternity, though - that's something else entirely. That's cooking with napalm. The mind boggles to even consider it.

Just do a thought experiment with me. Let's say, in eternity, that there are a hundred billion people in the world. That seems like a lot - based on a bit of googling, it's roughly the number of people ever born. But a hundred billion. The mind boggles. On the scale of eternity, though... You could spend a billion years getting to know every one of them individually, and you'd still have only gotten started. Of course, that doesn't mean they'll get boring - by the time we get back around to each other, it'll be, "Eric, what have you been up to these last 10 billion years?" Thinking about that is grasping at the fraying hymn of eternity.

Humanity, after the resurrection, will have eternity to live and learn and grow. Some of my science-inclined friends discuss the vast distances between stars and the centuries it takes to traverse them and assume we'll never explore the universe. Me, I just think it's waiting for after our bodies are raised imperishable and Jesus comes back. That isn't the end of the story, after all. It's just the beginning of the beginning.

The "year" is a discouraging unit of time. It is enough to feel like we really should have gotten somewhere, yet enough to recognize we haven't grown much at all. We feel like we should be miles ahead, yet we've only moved inches.

The beauty of eternity is that it's okay. We've got a trillion trillion years to inch ahead, and at the end of that, when we look at our trillion trillion inches - enough to get us to, say, Tau Ceti and back quite a few times, the internet tells me - we can make a resolution for how we'll spend the next septillion. There is time to figure things out.

All of which is to say... Make your resolutions. It's a good habit, I suppose. I'll probably even take a half-hearted stab at it myself. But do it with the rest that comes from today and from forever. God's mercies will be new tomorrow, and they will run on into millenia unnumbered and undreamed.

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