by Pastor Doug Kings
“Here we go again.” That was probably the most common reaction to the discovery of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus which causes COVID-19. The news came just as some public figures (who should have known better) began to wonder if or even declare that the pandemic was winding down.
Early on, more than a few pandemic experts warned that, based on past experiences, COVID-19 would be with us in some form for quite a while. As we enter the pandemic’s third year, that is about the only prediction about it that has held up. Omicron’s consequences are still unknown, as is the potential for other variants after this one. The effectiveness of current or future vaccines is also uncertain.
“Unknown” and “uncertain” are not usually words we like to hear. We want clarity; we want answers. Several years ago, a writer said that people now struggle dealing with long-term problems. His belief was that our view of life has been skewed by TV where most problems are resolved by the end of the episode.
Whether TV caused such an attitude or reflects an already existing one is debatable. It does seem true, however, that in many areas of modern life it is assumed that problems must be resolved quickly. Politicians and business executives have trouble investing themselves in programs that will last beyond their expected time in office. We view our personal lives in distinct time periods and often make detailed plans for them. If/when they don’t play out as expected, we feel lost and that we’ve failed somehow.
Everyone has had some aspect of their lives thrown into disorder, some plan cancelled, by the pandemic. While some normality has returned, plans made now are more tentative than before and an unwelcome sense of being out-of-control remains. Next year will I (finally) buy a house, change jobs, finish school, expand my business, get to Europe, move, have a baby, retire …?
Since well before the pandemic, however, there has been growing disillusionment with the modern notion of life as a highly organized and strategized project. Parents scheming to get their children into the most prestigious schools (starting with preschool!) and rushing them from one activity to another. Teens devastated by not getting enough “likes” on Facebook or followers on Instagram or TikTok. Young adults believing their lives must be carefully orchestrated, “getting it right” from their fraternity/sorority to career to marriage to children to neighborhood to country club to…. All with the fear that getting any of these “wrong” will be life-crushing disasters.
Thus, it’s not surprising that there has been growing appreciation of an ancient principle found in most of the world’s religions and philosophical traditions: living in the Now. Time, and the relationship of past, present and future, have always been mysteries, perhaps even more so since Einstein and the discovery of relativity. Yet, while not solving the mystery, living in the Now has been seen as the way to live within the mystery. For in fact, living only happens now.
Past and future are concepts, ideas which exist only in our heads. We have thoughts about the past, now, and we have thoughts about the future, now. But we can never “go back” to the past and the future never “arrives.” The clock, which so governs our lives now, is merely a social convention, like measures of weight or distance. Yet for most of our existence, homo sapiens lived just fine without it.
Now is the only place life “happens.” It can be tedious or painful but more often it can be amazing and even glorious—if we’re paying attention. And this where past and present can be so pernicious: they distract us from the now, which is to say, they prevent us from actually living.
In our imagination, we relive the past, either wishing it could return or lamenting it with guilt or anger. We imagine the future, with longing that it will be better or with anxiety that it will be worse. Yet the only reality is now, which we are spending in these speculative thoughts rather than appreciating what is happening around us.
Eternal Now is often capitalized because of the recognition that this is the only place where we experience the sacred. With our thoughts we control the past and future, but the present is what is happening now, beyond our control, and is our experience of Eternity. Again and again, Jesus draws people’s attention to the world around them (sun, birds, flowers, trees, animals), which is also where God’s presence, God’s “kingdom,” is to be experienced.
God’s blessing comes in living in the Eternal Now, as theologian Paul Tillich says powerfully in the conclusion of his sermon with that name.
Not everybody, and nobody all the time, is aware of this “eternal now” in the temporal “now.” But sometimes it breaks powerfully into our consciousness and gives us the certainty of the eternal, of a dimension of time which cuts into time and gives us our time.
People who are never aware of this dimension lose the possibility of resting in the present…. They are held by the past and cannot separate themselves from it, or they escape towards the future, unable to rest in the present. They have not entered the eternal rest which stops the flux of time and gives us the blessing of the present. Perhaps this is the most conspicuous characteristic of our period…. It lacks the courage to accept “presence” because it has lost the dimension of the eternal.
“I am the beginning and the end.” This is said to us who live in the bondage of time, who have to face the end, who cannot escape the past, who need a present to stand upon. Each of the modes of time has its peculiar mystery, each of them carries its peculiar anxiety. Each of them drives us to an ultimate question. There is one answer to these questions — the eternal. There is one power that surpasses the all-consuming power of time — the eternal: He Who was and is and is to come, the beginning and the end. He gives us forgiveness for what has passed. He gives us courage for what is to come. He gives us rest in His eternal Presence.
Blessings in your life and ministry.