I grew up obsessed with two things: music and heaven.
It seems to rise out of growing up in the Pentecostal tradition of evangelicalism.
In small churches filled mostly with people who didn’t have a lot in this life, we sang constantly about what lies beyond this life. We also lived with a bent toward–maybe an unbalanced bias for–heaven as an escape from the limitations and liabilities of life as it is.
Because I was shaped and influenced so powerfully by music, the songs we sang etched eternity in my consciousness to an almost neurotic level. Just look at the titles:
I’ll Fly Away
Just Over In The Glory Land
The Eastern Gate
Everybody Will Be Happy Over There
When They Ring Those Golden Bells
Gettin’ Ready To Leave This World
Looking For A City
Won’t It Be Wonderful There
Meeting In The Air
When We All Get To Heaven
We’ll Understand It Better By And By
We sang these songs out of Red-backed hymnals with such frequency that they were known more by their page numbers than the names. (I’ll Fly Away, page 333; Just A Little Talk With Jesus, page 92.)
Now I know to the younger generation or folks raised in other traditions these titles are completely unfamiliar and may seem terribly unrefined. But to those of us immersed in it through our early lives…well I probably just unleashed a horde of earworms you will be stuck with the rest of the day.
Even today if I hear one of these old songs play I can still sing all the verses by heart…no words projected on a wall needed.
Sadly, as I grew up I also grew out of the songs.
They sounded a bit too Pollyanna and escapist. The unsophisticated message and uncultured lyrics appeared out of touch with the stark realities of life in the real world.
“Sweet Bye and Bye” was drowned out by the harsher tones of the somber here and now.
Plus, too many of the folks who sang the songs spent so much time contemplating heaven that they weren’t really connecting to earth. All this emphasis on “tomorrow” robbed us of engagement in “today”.
I have recently discovered, however, the one lasting contribution these songs made to my psyche. I am utterly unable to forget that time has its limitations and this life is not all there is.
For me there is a constant awareness–heightened as I approach 60 and have lost so many people I love to death–that time is a fragile and finite commodity.
We only have so much and when we use up what we are given, it’s gone for good.
Some folks find comfort in that idea so they go for all the gusto and try to wring everything they can out of every moment they have. That’s ok. But the problem with this idea (and lifestyle) is that it is both exhausting and frustrating.
Because we are creatively designed for far more than we can experience and achieve in one lifetime.
That’s why so many of us face a myriad of “if-only” and “what-if” regrets as we approach end of life.
This design for more-than-we-can-become is knit into the deepest parts of our humanity. It has been there from creation.
Solomon is known to be one of the wisest men to live on the planet. He learned lessons that continue to inform us to this day. Listen to his late-in-life reflection on time vs eternity:
“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
What do workers gain from their toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-11)
The other day a TV commercial was backed by these words as sung by the Byrds in the late 60’s. Our oldest granddaughter quickly pointed out they were from the Bible. It started me thinking about them again. This is what impacted me so forcefully.
- God makes all things beautiful in time by making all things in time relative to eternity.
- Man attempts to make things beautiful in time by removing eternity from the equation.
Man’s approach never works. We always run out of time.
But there is a time for everything when we have bounty of eternity to counterbalance the brevity of time. When we lose our connection with eternity we lose our perspective on time.
What’s the point?
Maybe those old songs were onto something. Perhaps a healthy connection with eternity is not a distraction from real-life.
It could just be that only a firm connection with eternity fills us with the courage and passion for full immersion with time.
After all, it was Jesus who taught us to pray, “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10)
And wasn’t it He who lived an “incarnation”–an en-fleshment of how it should be into the current malaise of how it is?
True Christ-following is simply the adventurous pursuit of what will be in the rub and reality of what is. It is pouring into the “now” the full spirit, atmosphere and priorities of the “not yet”.
So I guess I’ll sing the old songs once again. Not to escape this world, but to fully engage it.