In all of the animal kingdom, humans alone feel that the days should not just be allowed to pass by anonymously, that time should be marked somehow.
Perhaps it’s because we alone are self-reflective enough to realize that our days do not just go on indefinitely, that for each of us, new days will stop coming at some point. Perhaps we observe important benchmarks in time—confirmations, Christenings, and quinceañeras—because we alone have contemplated death and so have felt an urgency about life.
That’s not to say that foreseeing the precariousness of our place in the universe always causes us to “make the most” of our time. Very often it can do just the opposite. Existential awareness becomes existential dread. It takes a very honest person to fess up to their existential dread and exhibit a classic mental breakdown. But I suspect that most of us deal with it by the more socially acceptable means of constant distraction—endless queues on Netflix and sporting events on our DVR, mindless shopping excursions, never-ending improvements to our homes, BuzzFeed after Reddit after Tumblr.
A recent study conducted by University of Virginia and Harvard researchers asked people to sit alone in a plain white walled laboratory for fifteen minutes without cell phones, books, or any other entertainment. Most of the subjects tapped out before the whole time was up. When the researchers upped the ante by introducing a device which allowed them to jolt themselves with a mildly painful electric shock, they found that an astonishingly high number, two thirds of the men and a quarter of the women, chose to shock themselves, often repeatedly, rather than be left to their own undistracted thoughts.
Some of our wisest philosophers have written tomes trying to grapple with the fact that a person who feels purposeless will often choose self-destructive pursuits or even death to a life where nothing matters. So maybe death is not the most terrifying thing that humans face. Maybe it’s meaningless life.
But for those who are being discipled in the lifestyle of selfless love, life without meaning is no longer an option. If the dead were not raised, then it would be true, as Paul muses, that the sensible way to live would be to simply “eat and drink for tomorrow we die” (1 Cor. 15:32). Everything would be vanity under the sun as the author of Ecclesiastes wrote before him.
But if Jesus has been raised, and if this does in fact point to a future where all of our existential lack is filled in up close appreciation for the brilliance of God and neighbor, and all roads on our cosmic journey lead to this point, then as a favorite professor used to say, “there is more to do with our lives now than just preserve them.”
Because of this confession, “He is risen,” great movements of self-sacrificial poverty have begun and martyrs have died willingly knowing that there are bigger fish to fry now than simply surviving to see another sun rise and fall. We haven’t seen God face to face and can’t say for sure why that experience should be so fulfilling for us that salvation isn’t just the same old meaningless stretched out across eternity. But we have met someone whom we trust, and he has said it is so.
For those of us who aren’t quite ready for martyrdom, the small ways in which we learn to make each day a living witness to the resurrection are not insignificant. Eating dinner around the table rather than the TV in order to hear about the discipleship triumphs and tribulations of our families, taking some time to write a letter to a friend whom we feel might be lonely, driving around the old jalopy car for another couple years in order to have more to give the poor; these are the ways in which our baptismal calling becomes real for us again on a daily basis.
At a more advanced stage of training in Jesus' way, it’s not unheard of for people—yes, even people in these staid Lutheran congregations that we inhabit—to make enormous career changes and household income sacrifices because of something that they felt was more faithful to God’s future. None of those that I know about felt compelled to do so by some religious legal requirement that dictates how we ought to live here and now. They were all moved by the sheer joy of having seen something better ahead on down the road. I’ve never met one, who has made such a step in faith, who is now trying to get back to their often far more lucrative values of yesteryear.
Many of us may not reach this level of radical faithfulness in this lifetime. Here’s the thing though. You have been brought into this movement toward God’s future, whether you like it or not. For those of us who were baptized as infants before we could even will it to happen, there is no towel that can dry it off. And from the moment of our baptism forward, we are no longer just existing. Your whole life has a forward momentum that is moving toward God’s feast for all peoples. If you don’t feel like going out and witnessing to the resurrection future of all creation, tough. There is frequent hinting around in the Bible that God can even twist your unfaithful into building blocks of this good future, because that's where life is heading.
Cheers and Peace,
Jared Witt (Twitter: @realjaredwitt) is a pastor in the ELCA and, along with Aaron Schmalzle, is a Founding Director of Castle Church Brewing Community and Castle Church Faith Community.