A Pepper Grinder Post

The Eternal Now

Did I ever mention that I went through an eastern religion phase in college? It was a little odd, because I still read the Bible every day, but I replaced prayer with Zen meditation. It took some time and the influence of the Holy Spirit and my future wife before I realized that the belief system I had created couldn't be made to fit with the uncompromising words of Jesus.

One of the phrases I remember from my jaunt into eastern religion was, "the eternal now." After so many years, I'm not quite sure what I thought it meant, but I know it appealed to me. As near as I can figure out, it connoted the idea that we should live for the moment. I think the idea was that if we were truly present in the here and now, this would somehow become a timeless moment that contained all of eternity.

What struck me recently was that the phrase actually has much more meaning to me now as a follower of Christ than it did when I was a Christo-Buddhist. You see, I believe God does want me to relate to him right now, in this moment. What I see all too often in myself is too much focus on the past or the future.

Mont Saint-MichelLet's start with the past. I am very good at guilt. There is a good type of guilt. That's the kind that drives you to apologize to God and to others, and to change your ways. There is also the type of guilt that makes you just keep feeling lousy about something over and over. You blew it and there's nothing you can do to fix it. Everything is ruined. That's the kind I'm really good at. But what has struck me about this second type of guilt (aside from the fact that it makes me feel bad) is that it keeps my focus on me and prevents me from turning to God. After all, everything is wrecked. What's the point of turning to God? There are other ways we can live in the past. We can live in the world of regrets. If only I had done this or hadn't done that... It's also possible to put our primary focus on positive memories of the past--to relive our glory days. I'm not trying to be too hard-line here. I don't think it's bad to enjoy some pleasant memories, but I think when we would rather dwell in our memories than live in the present, we are not on a good path.

An example of past-thinking is in Joshua chapter seven. This is after Israel's great triumph over Jericho. In the aftermath of that stunning victory, a man named Achan secretly took some of the plunder of the city for his own, even though the Jews had been commanded to treat everything in the city as an offering to God. The next city the Israelites came to was called Ai. It was considerably smaller and less well-defended than Jericho had been, so Joshua confidently sent only a partial force to take the city. He and the people were horrified when this force was soundly defeated by the men of Ai. Here is what Joshua said to God after this defeat.

"Ah, Sovereign LORD, why did you ever bring this people across the Jordan to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us? If only we had been content to stay on the other side of the Jordan! O Lord, what can I say, now that Israel has been routed by its enemies? The Canaanites and the other people of the country will hear about this and they will surround us and wipe out our name from the earth. What then will you do for your own great name?" (Joshua 7:7-9 NIV)

If I were God (and we should all be very thankful I am NOT), I would have felt sorry for poor Joshua. I think I might have comforted him and then gently explained about the deal with Achan. Here, on the other hand, is how God answers.

"Stand up! What are you doing down on your face? Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions. That is why the Israelites cannot stand against their enemies; they turn their backs and run because they have been made liable to destruction. I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy whatever among you is devoted to destruction. Go, consecrate the people. Tell them, 'Consecrate yourselves in preparation for tomorrow; for this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: That which is devoted is among you, O Israel. You cannot stand against your enemies until you remove it." (Joshua 7:10-13 NIV)

God sounds kind of sharp with Joshua. While I think God has tremendous compassion and patience with a genuinely grieving person, I don't think he is very tolerant of self-pity. Where was Joshua's focus when he made his speech to God? I think it was on himself, and I think it was on the defeat of the Israelites, which was now in the past. God clearly wants to turn Joshua's focus to what needed doing NOW. God's message is one of action in the here and now (even though it is dealing with something in the past). Stand up! Consecrate the people. Deal with the sin amongst the people. To me, God's message seems to be, "Don't sit around and be paralyzed by the past. Do what needs to be done now."

stormy nightNow for the future. I once heard a story about one of my nieces. One night when my niece was having trouble sleeping, my sister asked what she was thinking about. My niece (who might have been around five years old) replied that she was worrying about college. I think this may be a family trait. My mother certainly claimed to be quite a worrier, and I do a fair amount of worrying myself. On the other hand, I also spend a fair amount of time imagining things happening in the future that I want to happen. I also will sometimes imagine how things in the past could have gone differently. What all these mental activities have in common is that I am doing them instead of focusing on living right now, in this minute, for God.

Listen to this amazing passage from the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus talks about one type of future focus:

"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?"

"And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?"

"So do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own." (Matthew 6:25-34, NIV)

We probably all knew worrying was bad, but other types of future thinking are good, right? What about planning for the future? After all, if we fail to plan, we plan to fail, right? Our churches need a mission statement, or they'll just be meandering around in a purposeless way, don't they? Here again, I don't want to be totally hard-line: I don't think all planning is evil, but listen to what James said:

Now listen, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money." Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, "If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that." (James 4:13-15 NIV)

sunrise over fieldThis struck me the other month, when I heard that the 27-year-old actor, Anton Yelchin (who played Chekhov in recent Star Trek films) died in a freak accident, when he got out of his car to check his mail and his car rolled backwards and crushed him. The fact is, we just do not know what will happen in the future. While I don't think it's wrong to do some planning, I think the point being made by Jesus and James is that our greatest energies should go into living for God right now.

The reason for living in the moment is not to achieve some type of enlightenment or inner peace (though I think we will feel more peaceful if we do this). The point is relationship. God wants us right here and right now. He wants us to get straight with him and with others if we've done something wrong, but then, he wants us to move on and relate to him now. What we do now matters more than what we plan to do, because we don't know if our plans will amount to anything.

I find this idea incredibly freeing. I don't need to fix the past or control the future. All I have to do is live this moment with God. It doesn't matter if I was grouchy and complaining thirty seconds ago (though I may need to apologize). What matters is what I do right in this moment--in the eternal now.


*Photo Credits: Sunset at Mont Saint-Michel by , Storm clouds at night by , Sunrise over field by