Life among the pagodas
I’ve found the missions lifestyle riddled with opportunities for my mind and heart to be anywhere but here and present. There is a lot of looking ahead to the next horizon (or to the horizons several decades away). Some of this foresight is needful for good planning, but much of it, when I’m really honest, isn’t foresight at all: it’s fear, fear that I’ve rationalized and justified in the name of being prepared for the ever foreboding foe: Future.
Most of my fears have to do with beauty, the fear of losing what I have in the Present.
I’m afraid to leave the dear Mountain that presides over the rolling fields of Whatcom County, for it’s been my stalwart reminder that God doesn’t change. I shudder when I think of no longer being able to sit and listen to the waters of my favorite creek, with no one else nearby. I binged on raspberries this summer, knowing they don’t grow in our future place of residence. I’ve started collecting my favorite seeds to accompany us on our way, because I want to nurture some green thing to life, no matter how spare my future living arrangements.
A small part of this is practical: enjoying summer fruits, refreshing myself with time outdoors, hoping for the beauty and peace of a future garden. But another part of it is fueled by fear that I won’t always have what I have right now, that I ought to get a good helping of beauty now, because who knows what the next few years might hold? And so my quest to enjoy the present beauties finds me at the edge of harvest season, melancholy over the uncertainty of when I’ll next eat a raspberry, heedless of the table filled with backyard apples and tomatoes. Is there something wrong with this picture?
The biggest tipoff to the fact that I’m enjoying things for the wrong reasons (and hence, not truly enjoying them at all) is that I have ceased to be thankful for them. My sadness about leaving these beautiful things in my life and having no replacement might look like gratefulness on the surface, but deep down, it’s greedy fear. Gratefulness has morphed into, “how can I get more out of this, how can I plan a replacement for this when I need a fix?”
Mountains stop being mountains, raspberries are no longer raspberries, and trickling creeks cease to be peaceful when I devour them with a frantic fanaticism, trying to stock up this beauty in one day in preparation for a few years of absence. Even Jesus didn’t want his followers to live in anticipation of loss, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast when he is with them?” (Mark 2:19) There are ways in which he intended us to remain forever children—care-less—for our future lacks no good thing. We ought to live like that’s true, if we really believe it.
Screwtape offered some pointers for ways in which his protégé, Wormwood, could spoil human enjoyment of the Present:
It is far better to make them live in the Future… it is unknown to them, so that in making them think about it we make them think of unrealities. In a word, the Future is, of all things, the thing least like eternity. Hence nearly all vices are rooted in the future. Gratitude looks to the past and love to the present; fear, avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead.
We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap the altar of the future every real gift which is offered them in the Present.
Without the hope of Christ, we are all binge eaters, gorging ourselves for fear of losing the present and never feeling filled. Thankfulness urges us to enjoy the good things around us for what they are right now, without trying to change them or guarantee their permanence. The promises of God empower us to live presently. Faith beckons us to enjoy the present with boldness, knowing that it is merely the breeze before the Wind that will one day carry us home, where all things will be made new, especially our capacity to enjoy and worship.
For we have been given a promise of beauty that can fill a lifetime of the Present, the greatest promise of beauty mortals could hope after:
“When I awake, I will be satisfied with seeing your likeness.” (Ps 17:15)