“I gave you a land that you had not tilled and cities that you had not built, to dwell in; you have eaten of vineyards and olive groves which you did not plant.”

Joshua 24: 13

Joshua gathers the people and, in God’s name, he re-tells them the story of their birth and ongoing life as God’s people.  The core of the story is that they are not “self-made.”  They are, in the deepest sense, to understand and to live from the truth that all they are is a gift from God, a gift to be appreciated and tended.  They are merely a part of a line of those who have inherited the covenant love of God, given to them as a sign to the world that “the Lord is God.”  

The reason the story must be so often repeated is because it is typical of our human nature to forget who we most deeply are.  For us the immediate moment feels as if it is all we can deal with, and so we expend our energy and effort toward making the moment bearable and gratifying to our own small sense of self.  We have a somewhat conflicted presence to the greater truth of things because at times fidelity to that truth can feel to us as at odds with our more comfortable desired outcome.  

There is for us an urgency in the immediate.  The claims of the eternal are usually much less compelling on us, because they are so subtle and, unless we are truly attuned, hidden from us.  Yesterday a good friend sent me a poem of W.S. Merwin entitled “The Eternal Return.”  It is an extraordinary meditation on our human experience of the eternal Transcendent and the immanent.  It speaks of how what is not immediately here, that is the eternal, is what we forget even though it is what is most importantly to be remembered.  In our world where even among believers the spiritual is highly repressed, such language sounds like nonsense.  

To be a servant of God is to serve that which the world forgets and what is not readily apparent.  It is to live one’s life in such a way that one remains vigilant, looking to and for “what I do not know.”  This is precisely why, in the view of the purely immanent, the transcendent vision always seems, at least to some degree, to be foolish.  The other day I listened to a “Hidden Brain” podcast about “tunnel vision.”  Its theme was the human phenomenon whereby whenever a human experiences great scarcity, he or she can think of nothing but what is lacking.  The hungry person cannot think about long-term concerns or social structures, he or she can only think about getting enough nourishment to stay alive.  Society tends to blame poor people for their poverty asserting it is because they are poor planners and organizers of their lives.  Yet, all evidence suggests that it is precisely the contrary that is the truth.  People are poor long-term planners because they are poor.  When the same people gain some measure of relief from their immediate poverty, they begin to plan better.  

The most striking example for me that was offered in the podcast had to do with a young doctor, who began to suffer the effects of an extreme scarcity of time.  She was the paradigmatic overachiever, who, from her earliest school days, had always focused intently on her desire to be the top student.  As she entered high school she was determined to be valedictorian, so she took advanced placement biology in her freshman year.  She would always have index cards she would be studying everyplace she went and whatever else she was doing.  She sustained this pattern until she got to residency, where she would work a typical first year resident’s schedule of 80 or so hours per week.  But after work, she would only do those things that she thought would increase her efficiency at work, so she would spend hours in exercise, then do research oriented reading, and then sleep.  Within that first year, she began to suffer a breakdown, including an eating disorder.  

Eventually she broke down to the stage where she needed to enter a treatment center.  At the heart of that therapy was practice in just sitting and doing nothing.  At first she found this, even for very short periods of time, almost impossible.  But slowly she began to realize that as she sat, her mode of thinking began to change.  She began to remember the feeling of how much she enjoyed painting.  And so, as she began to get better, she began to structure her life differently.  When she returned home, she turned her home office into an art studio.  Even as she continued her long hours of work, she made time each day for working in her studio, for taking slow and longer walks outside, for spending time in quiet by herself and by spending more time with her friends.  Much to her surprise, her work did not suffer, but it actually got better.

Central to the experience of many of us in our culture is this sense of the scarcity of time.  When time is scarce we relate to ourselves, to others, and to the rest of the world principally by force.  We live immanently without a transcendent dimension.  We have even largely lost the sense of transcendence in our religious practice.  Yet, to be human in the deepest sense is to have a nagging memory of the eternal.  In every moment of our lives, if we pause for a moment, we have a sense that everything that has gone before is also present.  As Merwin says, “the whole sentence present in the last word.”  

I live a way of life, with varying degrees of fidelity, that is meant to be to the world what Joshua is to the people of Israel in today’s reading.  The purpose of my life is intended to be a living reminder of the transcendent, of the usually forgotten eternal “in which we live and move and have our being.”  it is in the very transience of life, in the coming and going of every form, that we experience the truth of the eternal.  The stars we witness “have long been gone,” yet new ones are born to take their place that others will see millennia from now.  As an elder, I am “the same child without a childhood.”  All I have forgotten is still with me.  We forget in order to remember anew.  That “re-membering” is a completeness which we cannot comprehend but in which we trust.  

As the young doctor in the podcast, our culture, it seems to me, is on the verge of a breakdown.  We seem now absolutely, at least in our public life, to have no mooring in deeper reality or in the truth of things.  We are manipulated by our public figures precisely because we are manipulable.  We bounce from one urgency to another, from one hoped for gratification to the next.  Because we have no sense of that which is eternal, we have no sense of responsibility for that which is beyond the present.  We do not “tend” to the future, because we are mired in our sense of a scarcity of time in the present.  Perhaps the treatment we need is the same one that she was fortunate to receive.  Perhaps we need to learn to sit still.  

Merwin writes:

even what is gone and I know that it is gone
and I know I will never look on it again
appears to me once more almost complete
in its own time and then gone again
it was watching over me while I slept

Most of the time we are present to what is gone in the form of sadness, resentment, or regret.  Yet, the poet suggests that it is possible to be present to all in such at way that it may come to appear to us “once more almost complete in its own time and then gone again.”  Perhaps the most painful experience I know in my life is the passing of that which I love, and feel that I need.  Separation always tends to break my heart.  Yet, separation and passing can also be experienced in another way, when we remember transcendence.  When my father died, I was in graduate school and engaged in a psychotherapeutic relationship with an extremely wise therapist.  I had very little time left with him after returning from my father’s funeral.  Yet, it was time enough to recognize with his help the spiritual “inheritance” my father had left me.  It would be idealizing to say I experienced “completion” in terms of my relationship to my father, but it is fair to say, with Merwin, that it appeared to me “almost complete.”  This was in vast contrast to my experience of a panic attack as I drove to prepare his funeral some weeks before.  At that moment I was overcome with a reality, as sense of the time, that was too much for me to manage.  And so it was.  What I didn’t understand is that it wasn’t something for me to manage.  It was rather something for me to be present to, not merely immanently but in transcendence.

In time I came to know that what had been, in a moment of panic, so overwhelming and frightening, was rather a moment in an eternal story and that the reality behind that story “was watching over me while I slept.”  The founder of my congregation, Theodore James Ryken, had a driving vision for himself and his brothers.  It was for simple laypersons, impassioned with a sense of God’s love, to go out to all the world and proclaim the good news of the gospel.  That proclamation is to be of the truth of that which is not readily manifest because it is eternal.  The rising and falling of forms, of everything and everyone, is the manifestation of transcendence, of a life that is eternal.  Absent that awareness, our experience of time as scarce and the urgency of the discrete moment not only threatens ourselves but the very future of humankind.  When our forgetfulness does not open to remembrance of the eternal, it leaves us in a constant state of panic.  

With apparently so much to be done, it may sound quite strange to say that we need to learn to sit still.  But, as the experience of the young doctor teaches us, this is the only way for our work to get better.  As spirit, human beings are a capacity to do a work that is spirit-infused, that is meaningful in an eternal sense, that is in service to the eternal, that is Divine, plan.  Yet, if we repress and stifle that spirit, our work may only dig us deeper into the hole of urgency and panic in which we so often finding ourselves.  Our society at this point is impoverished by a lack of creativity born of deprivation of spirit.  As the young doctor forgot the most creative aspects of herself, so we too. in our way of fearfully hurrying and grasping, are losing our memory of the eternal.  So, instead of working by the inspiration that carries the power of transformation, we manipulate the world out of our own fear of scarcity.  Even as we try to help, we do so with a tunnel vision born of our repression of the spirit, the eternal in  us.  The eternal has its own time.  To know that time requires of us to temper our sense of panic and urgency and to grow in the faith, hope, and love that will restore us to that spacious, eternal, sense of time.

  The Eternal Return

Because it is not here it is eternal
the stars we consider have long been gone
I cannot recall what I am saying
while clouds melted over the morning sea
here is the same child without a childhood
the whole sentence present in the last word
and the morning of what I do not know
brings back everything of what I do not know
brings back everything that I remember
even what is gone and I know that it is gone
and I know I will never look on it again
appears to me once more almost complete
in its own time and then gone again
it was watching over me while I slept

W. S. Merwin, The Moon Before Morning


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