As we face our mortality, as we all must, we discover that we have wishes, and often for the most passing things: to live long enough to see a building finished, to live long enough to see an end to the Trump disaster, to live long enough to see peace in places like Afghanistan, to live long enough to see an end to discrimination against women and LGBT people in the church, to live long enough to see an end to racism, to live long enough to. . .
We cling to life, and to living into the future. Some of this desire comes from a good place: despite the fact that we make a mess of it, life is inherently a good thing. We want more of it. And we want to see human beings make progress on unfinished goals, especially in the arenas of human rights and social justice.
Formulated in another way, this was the dream of our ancestors, too—ancestors who did not live to see the complete fulfillment of their dreams, but who migrated, nonetheless, to the promised land. Hebrews 11 is worth reading in that regard, a salutary reminder that none of us will reach our promised lands—the fulfillment of all our desires. It begins with Abraham and runs through the whole cast of characters, up to Jesus:
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.”
All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. (NRSV)
Seeking a homeland. Perhaps that is the real motivation for wanting to live to see our dreams fulfilled. For we do not feel that we are now living in a “city” of firm foundations. Too many are suffering. We are living in tents (for some among us, literally so). And, while we may accomplish much in this brief sojourn, hopefully passing on something good to the next generation, we must rest content with seeing the promises fulfilled “from a distance,” and from that distance to see and greet them.
But that should not lead to a passive life. We have to live, in any way we can, to advance our kind toward the promised land. We cannot rest content as we witness so much horrifying injustice and mendacity abounding around us, to so much that is truly dark. Simultaneously we must learn to let go, surrendering the final fulfillment of our dreams and hopes to future generations. To have faith is to live in this tension between living into the promise, yet yielding its fulfillment to a “time” beyond our own. This tension lies at the heart of a “political mysticism” and has kept the spirit alive in the great prophets among us, all the way into our own time.
All of this finally leads us to the most difficult thing, which is surrendering our very lives to God. Finite creatures that we are, we resist this. Yet that surrendering puts all the rest of life, including the darkness of the present time, into a necessary perspective. So much of the evil that surrounds us springs from the human refusal to yield our lives to God, and instead to curve in on ourselves, becoming ugly and spiteful, hateful and destructive. Surrendering over time to Love, though, results in a different way of being: a desire for what is true, right, good and beautiful; the élan vital to work for it; and the deeper joy of living into the promise, even if we know that we will not live to see it fulfilled.