THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 66
A sense of continuity
I wonder whether you remember the feelings you enjoyed as a child of endless, long summer days? Perhaps in a garden or wandering in a field, or along a country lane, you see yourself as you were as a young child, loitering away the long summer days of holidays, days that seemed to last forever and to be endless in their succession.
It is only as we grow older that we change our approach to time. As adults we learn the tyranny of time. We have to be adult to learn to ‘appreciate’ time – to apportion the hours for this or that activity. To have aims and objectives. To learn that time is not endless but strictly limited and that it passes all too quickly.
As adults we learn the tricks of the trade – we learn to mark off the hours with specific jobs to be done, maximising our productive efforts in the time available.
As life progresses we learn the different values of different periods of time. Time with a loved one becomes precious and jealously guarded. Time at work seems sometimes to drag along endlessly. We learn, without anything being said, that one hour on the clock can mean very different things to us at different times. One hour in an exam room, when we are struggling to form and express our thoughts, can pass as if it were ten minutes. Then ten minutes spent in some specially enjoyable way can seem to go on for ages, and we are astonished to discover that the clock has only advanced by a few minutes.
When we are at the threshold of life we throw ourselves into huge tasks with abandon and, surprisingly, we often achieve great results in a short time. When we are old we cannot countenance tackling the same job – we explain that ‘it looks at us’.
Over a lifetime pleasures take on different time significance. What pleased us when we were young somehow loses it’s attraction and become prosaic or even boring – a waste of time. Eating and drinking are perhaps two of the enduring pleasures of life – yet how often we gobble through our food in order to get on and do something that seems ‘important’.
As we get older addictions and obsessions can slowly start to hold us. Quite apart from the usual problems, work, which can be such a joy and a challenge when we are young, can take on a very different appearance when we are older. What was relished and enjoyed can become a burden, endured only because it is our duty or for the money.
And our ambitions change too, over time. You wanted to succeed or, perhaps, to be well known. Now suddenly that has been achieved. And it does not give you quite the expected satisfaction. The anticipated satisfaction has gone sour. It doesn’t lift your heart anymore. Time has changed your values.
Or you wanted a family – well, now you have had one, and the children have grown up and gone. What was a clear aim for so many years has turned out to be a very transitory thing, and not at all what you expected.
Or you wanted financial security and set your life on course to achieve it – but now, years later and financially secure, it hardly seems an appropriate object for a person’s life.
And so, as we age, we reach a stage where there are fewer and fewer aims and targets in front of us. And eventually it does not seem worthwhile to even start another ‘project’, and our health and strength are not what they were. And so we relax into just letting ourselves drift along on life’s gentle current, aware that there before long we shall reach the Falls where our boat will be whirled around out of control – and who knows what will happen then?
Perhaps we comfort ourselves at this stage of life with the thought that we can at least be called a survivor. We have ‘completed the course’ – or nearly so, anyway. Colleagues and friends have died besides us along the way, and we have been sad to see them go. But we are still here on life’s current of time, and the boat is still moving along, albeit sluggishly.
It seems absurd to us that those people we knew, and knew so well, have disappeared. Gone, without trace. They have come to the end of their life, and are no more. Surely they have gone to another place? Some other land? There is a discontinuity in their death and disappearance. They have come to the end of their time and are no more. Can that really be true – those who seemed so alive and who still walk and talk in our memories.
It is at this point that the Christian steps in with a positive message. He actually knows no more than anyone else. Nothing that can be proved. Nothing that can be verified. But he has a theory. A theory handed down from someone who said that he knew what happens when time finally comes to an end for a person, when death supervenes.
This man is reported as saying that death may seem the end but it is not. There is survival of the person. There is another existence – perhaps one where time is not like time as we know it. Time of a sort that we cannot comprehend. That those ‘intimations of immortality’ that we all feel fleetingly from time to time are because we catch a genuine hint of things that are to come.
Of course the human mind then starts probing. Where? when? how? why? And there are no answers. This man said that there were many rooms in his Heavenly Father’s dwelling. That clearly means that there is a life beyond this one. There is continuity – that sense of ongoing that we all find so prevalent and persuasive in our hearts.
But he said little else about what is ahead, and we are left with our imagining. What would it be like, this other land? Would that sense of accountability that we all have still be part of the picture?
Would it be anything like that last book in the bible? No! It would be nothing like the Book of Revelation. That pictorial and even mystic language is from another age, another world, and another religious background and should not be superimposed on today’s concept of what happens when we pass beyond this life. Close the book. Lay it aside, and let your mind go instead to the life of the man who seemed to know about the future. See what he says about it. It’s all there in the Gospels. He is the best guide. He conveys that sense of continuity. A credible belief in a loving Father - an ongoing purpose, a meeting with others (the rooms must be next to each other), and a realisation that the values for life of which he spoke continue beyond death and are part of the very fabric of reality.
The interesting thing is that when a man gets hold of this belief and realises that there is a continuity that survives death, then a gleam of hope is born within him. It may not seem very significant when he is young, but as he grows older this spark of hope assumes greater and greater importance in his life. Eventually he comes to realise that this hope provides something that permeates all he does and all he is as a Christian. If our relationship with God is only in this life, then we are indeed to be pitied. But it isn’t! It continues on and on – beyond time and into eternity.
There! I’ve said it! That terrible word ‘eternity’. But it doesn’t mean anything! None of us has the slightest idea what it means. How can we? We are creatures bound in time and place. Everybody knows that. We don’t need an Einstein to produce a theory of relativity for us to see that. Time and space are the warp and weft of all our thinking. We cannot get our minds around the phrase ‘beyond time’. It is meaningless to us. Except, perhaps, for this one idea: that things here do have a meaning, because there is some form of continuity. All things, including life and death and beyond, are in the hands of a loving Father. But, whatever that continuity means, we can believe in it. We can trust it is so. And, trusting, we find we have hope.
Paul, writing to the little Church in Rome around the last quarter of the first century, gave them this parting message:
‘Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit’.
What a sentence! What a prayer! Having this sense of continuity, this hope of a future, we are to be filled with joy and peace, abounding in yet more hope because the power of God fills us. Because this power fills us we are also filled with joy and peace. And joy and peace flow into this hope, given us by the Holy Spirit. The sequence goes round and round, feeding on itself. Wonderful words of Christian affirmation. This is what it means to be a Christian. His children here on earth know this joy and peace, are filled by the Holy Spirit and have this certain hope for the future.
The hymn puts it beautifully, when talking of these joys:
‘…none but his loved ones know.’
– but they know!