Heaven and earth will pass away.
But my words will not pass away.
Luke 21: 33
As we continue to reflect on the theme of judgment, we attend to the words of today’s gospel and ask ourselves the question: “What is passing, and what is enduring?” So much of what disorients us in life is our inability to distinguish between the two. We cling to what is passing, and we forget what is enduring.
A few years ago I awoke, unusually for me, in the middle of the night. And what was on my mind was the line of Jesus from Luke 13: 37: “I do not know you or where you are from.” At that moment I realized that for me this was one of the most frightening lines of the gospel, for what would the experience be of standing before Jesus and his not recognizing the person I had become.
One of the most familiar passages in American literature comes from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Thoreau entered into the solitude of his cabin on Walden Pond because he knew of the possibility that living the life of the community in Concord, he might become estranged from his own real identity.
Although it is undeniable that “everything passes,” our unreflective tendencies would lead us to attempt to build our life based on the illusion of the ultimate significance of the passing rather than on the eternal Word at the core of our being. The pulsations of our time and culture are always moving us to create a “self” that conforms acceptingly and successfully to its norms. On the other hand, the aspirations and inspirations of the eternal, of our spiritual identity, are much more subtle in their appeal. The Fundamental Principles remind us that to attune to God’s ways for us will require of us a daily practice and discipline: a dedicated time each day of “strategic withdrawal” from the pressures of culture and conformity.
For your part,
God asks you in return
to make God’s word your home.
To do this
you must be willing
to spend time each day
in solitude and prayer,
opening yourself to God’s living word.
Perhaps, most significantly, the “judgment of God” is finally our own judgment. Do we know who we are, and, within our lights and capacities, do we give ourselves to the ongoing expression and formation of that unique word that God speaks in and through us? Do we strive each day and moment to express in word and deed what we are given by God to offer?
We thank you, our God, for your judgments which are sterner than the judgments of man. Help us to remember them when moral men speak well of us. We thank you for your mercy which is kinder than the goodness of men. Help us to discern this when we are overcome by the confusion of life, and despair about our own sin. Grant us, O Lord, always to worship you in all our doings in the greatness of your creativity and the wonder of your judgment and your mercy.
Reinhold Niebuhr, The Essential Niebuhr, p. 48