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The Eternal Now

November 4, 2013

“The Eternal Now” © 11.3.13 All Saints’/All Souls’ by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

In one of the “Star Trek” movies, Patrick Stewart is trapped in an underground tunnel with a beautiful and wise alien, played by Donna Murphy. She’s 300 years old, but doesn’t look a day over 35, thanks to the youth-sustaining properties of her planet. But though she’s lived for centuries, she’s not immortal. Right now Murphy is dying of internal injuries sustained in a cave-in, and Stewart is desperate to save her. It will be hours before the Enterprise crew can dig through the rubble and reach them. His only choice is to do what Murphy had taught him earlier in the film. With a thought, he makes time stand still.

If only. We would love to make time stand still when a moment with a loved one is so precious we wish it would never end. We want the warmth and certainty of a special evening to last and last; we have no desire to go back to the real world. Or we encounter a sight in nature so achingly beautiful that we wish we could freeze the experience not only in a photograph or video, but to be right there, feeling the breeze and the sunlight and smelling the air. And when we come to the time when we sit by the bedside, and our beloved is soon to depart this world, we long for what guitarists call “infinite sustain,” so we would never have to let him or her go, provided our loved one felt no pain.

Songwriter Neil Peart, near the end of the last century, put our dream this way: “Time stand still/I’m not looking back/But I want to look around me now/See more of the people/And the places that surround me now./Freeze this moment/A little bit longer/Make each sensation/A little bit stronger/Experience slips away./I let my past go too fast/No time to pause/If I could slow it all down/Like some captain/Whose ship runs aground/I can wait until the tide/Comes around./Make each impression/A little bit stronger/Freeze this motion/A little bit longer/The innocence slips away./Summer’s going fast/Nights growing colder/Children growing up /Old friends growing older/Experience slips away” (“Time Stand Still,” 1987).

Our beautiful moments of longing and love are a blessing, but they are also a curse, because they remind us of the inexorable march of our lives from past to the future, with the present in between, itself always becoming the past. We both long for and fear the future, and we look to the past with regret and nostalgia.

Paul Tillich was a theologian who was always seeking the correlation between the gospel and the real-life issues human beings face. In his 1963 book The Eternal Now, he reflected on what he called “the riddle of the present.” “[T]here is no present,” he wrote, “if we think of the never-ending flux of time.” There is no answer to the riddle, Tillich noted, “except from that which comprises all time and lies beyond it—the eternal.” Every moment of time is touched by the eternal, and it’s the reality of the eternal, he said, that gives us each second, minute, day, and hour of the present. We are able to live in the ever-changing reality of today because of the eternal reaches into our world. “It is the eternal ‘now’ which provides for us a temporal ‘now.’… 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” (130-31).

Perhaps nowhere more than in worship does the eternal break into our time. When our hearts are filled with awe, when our attention is focused on the Alpha and the Omega, who was, is, and is to come, the I Am, we are taken out of time into the eternal.

By the word “eternal” is not meant unending time, but another reality completely, beyond and above and outside of time. It is a quality of life and experience that is nothing less than complete renewal, perfect companionship with the One whom writer David James Duncan calls “the Unbounded” and the limitless, unfathomable, beautiful Mystery (God Laughs and Plays: 19, 46).

Worship at its best leads us to the thin place where heaven and earth, the eternal and time, meet. We become aware that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, the saints we celebrate today. We know that we are a part of something so much larger, so much grander, so much more beautiful and lasting than anything we could ask or imagine. We are taken out of time into eternity. We commune with those who have gone before us, and we know that they live in that dimension where there is neither crying nor pain, and death is no more, but God is all in all, dwelling with his people.

The late renowned sociologist Robert Bellah once preached a sermon on All Souls’ Day in which he reflected on the nature of the church as a living community. “The dead are still part of” us, he said. “We remember our family and friends, those close to us whom we have lost. But beyond them stretch the vast body of those unknown, and the whole of creation that came before us, and that we owe so much…. ‘It is in the Eucharist… that it all comes together: with all the company of heaven, the communion of the saints, and of all souls, all enfolded in one time. Time out of time, all equally present—past, present, and to come…. [T]he eternal now’” (Steven M. Tipton, “The Logic of the Holy,” The Christian Century, September 4, 2013: 13).

Let me end our meditation for this day by returning to Tillich. “‘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” (The Eternal Now: 132).

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