Time and Eternity

Well, we seemed to have made it through the time change okay—so far. It took effect at 2am this morning, while we were all sleeping, and the clocks actually moved backward an hour, so we may have felt more rested than usual. The sun rose a little earlier today, didn’t it? That was a treat. I have had this vague feeling like I’m running late all morning, but I assume that’s just because my body is still on yesterday’s time. And there was a brief moment of confusion when I set the timer on the microwave instead of the clock and then stood there dumbfounded as time ran backwards quickly for a moment.

Change is often not easy for us—in fact for many, adapting to change gets tougher, the older we get—and change around time seems especially jarring. We don’t quite understand time but we live fully immersed in it. Our days have schedules and expectations. Our weeks follow a logical pattern. The months flow into years and there is a cycle we not only set out clocks by—we set our lives by. And when that gets shifted—even if just by an hour on the clock—we can feel off-kilter for a while.

And of course this time of year there are other changes going on around us too. We are far into what I think has been one of the most beautiful falls I can remember. I’d like to hold on to it a bit longer. I mentioned before that I felt the same way about summer—everything just seemed so much more lush and beautiful than previous years. Everywhere I looked in my yard, even when the gardens needed weeding, what met my gaze was an abundance of colorful blossoms, flowers that were so happy this year that their whole existence shined. I wonder whether God gave us an extra-lovely summer because of the less-than-lovely COVID-framed year and a half we’ve been living through. And the beauty we see right now in the fall colors does the same—brilliant orange, red, gold, and yellow-green—the crowning gifts of the growing season.

My work at hospice involves a lot of driving, and much of it out in the country, as I visit patients in their homes through the week. I love being out and about instead of working in the hospital all day. And on lovely fall days, especially when the colors are at their peak, I feel blessed and grateful no matter how far I need to drive or how busy the day may be.

Toward the end of last week, driving south, I went through a forested area where the leaves rained down on my car—and some dropped into my sunroof. And even though they were lovely, my immediate thought was, “Oh no, don’t fall too soon!”

But we all know this—we see it every year—that the height of fall’s colors lasts only for a brief moment of time. Our only real choice is to enjoy it as much as we can while it’s here. Because as soon as the next blustery day or rainstorm comes along, the amazing palette will become a soggy carpet, leaving the trees mostly bare and ready for winter. We know it’s only a matter of time. In fact, that is how we each know and measure time itself—by seeing and experiencing the changes around and within us. Time, researchers tell us, is a relative construction that is tied to our experience in this world. Here and now, and there and then, we experience time through change. And that change is inevitable, as is time in this realm. As the philosopher Heraclitus said some 500 years before Christ, in this life “there is nothing permanent except change.”

The idea for today’s message came from a lovely comment Rick Schoeff made at Gwen’s funeral recently. It has stuck with me ever since. After hearing all the good stories about her life, he said he could tell that Gwen did the two essential things in life very well: She enjoyed her time while she was here and she got to know her Father in eternity.

Such a simple and beautiful idea. Time and eternity, our part and God’s part, side by side, throughout our lives. Classical philosophers define eternity as what exists outside time, beyond the segments of changing experience we know in this realm. We know that kind of freedom is where we’re headed, when we’re no longer bound to our experience of this body and this mind. But we rarely think about it as part of our experience now. After all if eternity is limitless, we are living eternity now, whether we realize it and chop it up into time-sized encounters or not. And bringing a bit more eternity-mindedness into our days might add a measure of peace, grace, and assurance we all need right now. The world needs right now.

It’s all here, side by side, simply waiting for us to notice. As the poet William Blake wrote:

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.

In our Old Testament reading, the psalmist begins by reminding us that “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.” In the moments of uncertainty and discomfort brought about by change in this world of time—and we all experience many of those—the psalmist encourages us to look toward the eternal, where the source of our strength and our sense of security is found. Fear and anxiety won’t have a lasting hold on us, he suggests, if we’ve been spending time getting to know God.

And even when the world seems to be in an uproar, with kingdoms falling and nations at war, God has only to lift His voice, and everything changes. Things calm. Eternity enters the frame of human existence. “Be still, and know that I am God,” God says, inviting into that quiet place out beyond the noisy and tension-filled demands of time and conflict. Thinking of this—“Be still, and know that I am God”—as an invitation to peace and transcendence, I think of a verse from Rumi’s poem, “A Great Wagon”:

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.”

There is a reason we need to move outside of time, into the quiet, before we can feel a sense of God’s peace. First, being still isn’t something that is naturally easy for us to do. Our brains are wired to be busy, thinking, planning, analyzing, reacting. If we try to quiet our thoughts it can feel like a losing battle, and besides, we may not want to. We can get so wrapped up in our thoughts that we think they are who we are. A busy, loud, crowded mind is a mind stuffed with its own ideas, making it hard to hear God. But when we let ourselves rest in stillness—and we Friends are generally pretty good with this because silence is part of our tradition—we become more receptive and open. Our minds stop whirring like a hamster in a wheel. We are more likely to notice when subtle thoughts or gentle nudges or calming feelings wash over us. When this happens, we have transcended time and reconnected with our experience of eternity—in the here and now, God-with-us.

Over the years at hospice, I have found that when I am with someone who is feeling anxiety or fear about the end of life and we begin to talk about heaven, a great sense of peace and comfort and even anticipation comes to comfort their heart and lift their spirit. People enjoy talking about what they think heaven will be like, what they learned as children, what they picture now, who they think will be the first to greet them there—family members, friends, and beloved pets. They talk about what they have loved in this life and what they expect to continue to love in heaven. They imagine how free it will feel to not be limited by their body any longer, to be able to breath better, to walk again. Some people think about what it will be like to see Jesus, or they imagine hearing a heavenly chorus sing for the first time.

I wish you could see what I see as those conversations unfold because the transformation is stunning. As their thoughts turn toward eternity, their faces brighten, their smile returns, their eyes light up, they sit a bit taller. They feel a sense of joy that must be heavenly joy because it isn’t coming from the reality illness has forced upon them. Most often, they are hurting, they are tired, they are weary of being limited by a body that is losing its strength and vitality. Their joy comes not from the experience of a sick person in the hospital bed but from that of God in them, their eternal life, remembering and yearning for and leaning toward heaven.

In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he does what he’s so good at, packing a lot of teaching into a short and powerful paragraph. He deftly weaves the eternal into his teaching about how to live a good and faithful life in in the here and now. It’s not an either or—the world now and eternity later—but a both/and. He begins by writing that God, “has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” Right off the bat he connects us to the deeper idea that our personal daily lives unfold in the context of eternity, like nesting dolls, part of a much bigger and heavenly blessing in Christ. He reminds us that this is with a purpose–God has made us for eternity–and that God continues to lead us “with wisdom and understanding” to grasp “the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure.” And his good pleasure, Paul says, is “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.”

What a lovely thought that is. God’s good pleasure—because God is love and life and light—is to bring everything together, healing all the separations and false divisions we make in this world of time. It’s God’s intention to bridge the perceived gaps between people, between ideologies, languages, cultures, to knit us together as One family, One eternal moment of joy–time and eternity, heaven and earth seamlessly whole.

And we have a part in that, Paul suggests, as our relationship with our Father in eternity grows and we understand more clearly the mystery of God’s will. In our daily, personal lives, we each have continual opportunities to bring heaven and earth together when we choose to pause the busy-ness of our minds and remember God. When we pray, when we listen, when we offer love and compassion, kindness and forgiveness to others, when we act as we are led, we connect our experience in time with God’s transcendent, eternal love and purpose. That connection can change everything, as God’s goodness flows into our reality and shines through our lives out into the world. That’s how we contribute to the “ocean of Light” George Fox saw overflowing the “ocean of darkness” so long ago.

I love the little poem Representative Elijah Cummings shared on the House floor as his first speech as a newly elected member of Congress back in 1996:

I only have a minute,
60 seconds in it,
forced upon me, I did not choose it,
but I know that I must use it,
give account if I abuse it,
suffer if I lose it.
Only a tiny little minute,
but eternity is in it.

Time and eternity, recognized or not, are both a part of our daily experiences, inseparably joined. We are dual citizens of heaven and earth, bonded across time in Love and Light. It’s God’s good purpose and plan to unite us in Love and dissolve the divisions between us. Let’s help that plan along by welcoming God’s goodness into the “tiny little minutes” in our days. When we do, we’ll find more light, more peace, more joy, more beauty around and within us. Because eternity is in it.

RESOURCES

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