It sounds like an ignorant hippie thing to say and the greatest possible contradiction. Eternity is a word for forever, for things of grave significance. A moment is definitively fleeting, unimportant. How could eternal and moment be used in the same sentence? And yet, this was the paradoxical insight shared in a video at our church men’s retreat last weekend by Ed Dobson, a famous pastor who has been living with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) since 2001. As Ed puts it, “When you are worried about the future, it’s hard to find God. When you’re living in the moment, God’s right there with you.” I think the reason America is so spiritually emaciated both inside the church and without is because we are a culture that is built entirely around not living in the moment.
In American culture, living in the moment is synonymous with being a spoiled, irresponsible dilettante. We think of the fable of the ant and the grasshopper that Walt Disney made into a capitalist morality cartoon. The grasshopper plays his fiddle all summer long while the ants are working hard to store up food for the winter and build their colony (art isn’t work unless you’re a filmmaker). When winter comes, the grasshopper doesn’t have any food and he’s got no place to live, so he pounds on the door of the ant colony. After a sanctimonious lecture, the ants take pity on him and let him come in to enjoy their feast.
What we need to understand first of all is that living in the moment is not the same thing as self-indulgence. Many of the things that we do to “relax” aren’t really relaxing. They are ways of channeling (and perpetuating) our neurosis. Sitting on a couch scarfing down potato chips watching trashy television is not living in the moment; it’s escapism, which is the opposite of living in the moment. Living a party lifestyle in which you follow whatever whim and fancy comes into your head is not living in the moment either because what you’re really doing is fleeing in terror from the possibility of ever becoming bored (or even worse boring).
People who live in the moment embrace what others call boredom. They’re able to sit in very ugly places and be moved to tears by their beauty. They don’t need postcard views with bright blue water and perfectly white beaches; a community garden in a run-down Detroit neighborhood is a perfect place to contemplate the beauty of the Earth. I don’t think you can live in the moment without believing in God, because living in the moment is a transcendent act. If our world is just a random, self-perpetuating accident, then there is no reason to stop moving.
The Greeks had two words for time: chronos, the time that never stops moving, continuously turning the future into the past, and kairos, the eternal now that we usually experience as sort of a vague corona on the outer edge of our lives. Most of our lives are spent in chronos, making plans, following routines, never resting. In order to enter kairos, we have to put everything in chronos aside. We have to enter into prayer, but with a very specific understanding of what prayer is. If prayer is nothing more than asking God to do things for us, cataloging and processing our mistakes, checking off all the thank you’s that need to be said aloud, and preparing ourselves to face tomorrow’s to-do list, then our prayer remains in the realm of chronos.
Prayer is most fundamentally about resting in God. It is true that we ask for God to intercede in peoples’ lives, confess our sins, and praise God for the ways we have been blessed, but all these things serve the purpose of drawing us more deeply into God’s presence. The thing that makes the present not the future and not the past is the depth of our presence within it. Otherwise it is as interchangeable with any other moment as the white hash marks between the lanes on an interstate highway. When we live without a present, i.e. a life absent of prayer, we are not really living, but racing to death.
I’m convinced that American Christians today need a complete overhaul in how we talk about the eternal life that Jesus talked about in the Bible, because the way we talk about it now actually doesn’t match up with how the Bible talks about it. Since American society has made a religion out of worshiping chronos time (planning ahead, covering more ground faster and more efficiently, etc), we can only contemplate “eternal life” as the future on a linear timeline, rather than the present that always is.Instead of being the “life hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3) in which God has already “raised us up [past tense] with him and seated us [past tense] with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6), eternal life to us has been reduced to the admission ticket for some intergalactic theme park where we get to go at the end of time if we say the right prayer to show that we have “faith” in Jesus. How can a “ticket to heaven” be all that Jesus is talking about when He says that His living water “will become in [us] a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14)?
I think we have a much more compelling gospel to share than the self-interest-validating personal afterlife insurance gospel that predominates American Christianity. The reason that it’s amazing news that Jesus died for my sins is because I can enter into the secret realm of eternity right now. While the world around me wrings its hands trying to keep up with the Joneses and secure solid investment portfolios for retirement, I can still do what I have to do to survive and provide for my family, but without all the suffocating neurosis and spiritual anemia, if I am living in the eternal moment of God’s presence.
Thomas Merton writes in No Man is An Island that “to live forever without life is everlasting death: but it is a living and wakeful death without the consolation of forgetfulness” (20). That is the hell that we need to run away from. But it’s not as easy as closing your eyes and talking to the air, because doing so will only be a farce that does nothing to help us, unless we have a reason to call someone “God” and a foundational trust in that someone that allows us to speak with enough integrity and vulnerability so we can hear a voice respond to us and “testify with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:16).
I recently listened to a podcast from a British Christian charismatic group called “Company of Burning Hearts.” They call themselves Christian ecstatics whose purpose is “to mentor a generation in walking with God like the mystics and saints of old in supernatural normality, compassion and intimate union.” If you visit the site, it might sound a bit out there and “new-agey” or something, but what I’ve encountered so far seems legit.
I don’t give it an unqualified endorsement because I haven’t reviewed it thoroughly enough. It’s still more of a “listen with discernment,” but the podcast I heard by Emma Joy Henderson was filled with solid Biblical foundations and absent of any discernible heresy. The beautiful thing about it is that she engaged scripture not as a set of wooden proof-texts for the sake of supporting an argument, but as the poetic foundation of an inspired, imaginative life.
It was such a breath of fresh air for me. If their encounters with the Holy Spirit are genuine, then the invitation they’re offering sounds so much more authentic and beautiful than the freaky scary doomsday stuff that often pollutes the charismatic landscape. What Emma Joy was describing seemed to confirm my own experiences in the Catholic basilica in DC. Eternity is so much more than an afterlife theme park.
There is a reason that the apostle Paul can’t stop talking about “the riches of God’s glory.” It isn’t just poetic fluff to fill in the space between the serious words that count like “judgment” and “sin” and “wrath.” He’s talking about an objective reality that he experienced (c.f. 2 Corinthians 12:1-4). There’s no better word than “riches” to capture the activity of heaven that is happening all around us while we zoom frantically past on the highway of chronos racing to death. We desperately need to get off that highway of chronos and be “swallowed up in life” (2 Cornithians 5:4) as we lose ourselves in the wildflowers of God’s eternal moment.