Be Happy. Live in the Present!

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I.

In the early days of his presidency, Ronald Reagan, feeling the constant nearness of “the football,” the plans and procedures that could instantly unleash nuclear attacks on a vast number of global targets, wondered out loud if he might be God’s instrument to bring the great battle of Armageddon to pass–essentially destroying the world and forcing God to end history as we now know it.  I was scared to death when I read in a Louisville newspaper early one morning about what was going on in his head while Nancy was down the hall on the phone with her astrologer, getting guidance for the day. 

Robert Patterson, an Air Force major who carried the football during the Clinton administration, explained that the specifics of the football’s contents are, naturally, classified. Patterson confirms that the leather-bound satchel manufactured by Haliburton does, indeed, contain a handbook detailing options for unleashing U.S. nuclear weapons, and the military aide carrying the football would be expected to help the president implement the turning of Planet Earth into hell. Patterson told the press long after his tenure as football carrier had passed that everything one might imagine is in the 45-pound case, instructions about “…everything from firing a tactical nuclear weapon…to full-born Armageddon.”

It was well attested during Reagan’s presidency that he had a keen interest in biblical prophecy–particularly what he read in the Bible as end-time predictions. In Mr. Reagan’s personal diaries that were published, I believe, 2007, there’s an entry for June 7, 1981, and it reads, “Got word of Israeli bombing of Iraq–nuclear reactor. I swear I believe Armageddon is near.” We’re lucky to have lived through those eight years, and the next eight, by the way. I’m not sure who told whom what, but the word is that the football was opened on 9/11.

Christianity, through no fault of Jesus, became early on a religious movement inordinately preoccupied with the future. Jesus was clearly not future focused; he very much lived in the present moment and pressed his followers to do the same. There was more to do “right now” than they possibly could have gotten done so why waste energy pondering the future?  One very memorable place where Jesus taught the futility of futurism was in what scholars now call his Sermon on the Mount.  “Don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matt 6 NRSV adapted).  If food is an issue, his example, worry about it one day at a time. Worry about it today for today and not today for tomorrow.

Jesus certainly did offer a few comments here and there about how he, very generally, thought the present chapter of human history would come to an end or to a major transition, at least. Again, though, being preoccupied with the ways and means history as we know it would close down was an utter waste of time. Something out there was coming; things won’t always be the way they are right now, “but about that day or hour,” Jesus said, “no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Child of Humanity, but only God Godself” (Matt 13:32 NRSV adapted). Jesus makes it very clear that he and God are not one and the same entity, and he tells his followers that God knows; but no human being, including he himself, the Child of Humanity, knows how this chapter in human history comes to a close. How in the world could Jesus have been more clear than that?  There is not from Jesus any impetus whatsoever, any mandate, any encouragement to try to predict when the end of the present world order will come to a close.  

Even so, that hasn’t stopped Jesus’ followers including those who first heard him say this with their own ears from predicting the immanent end of the age. Here’s an interesting fact to keep in mind: not a single person who has ever attempted to predict the end of time as we now know it has been correct. No prediction of the end of time has in human history to date ever been correct. Human history continues. Frighteningly, there have been those who believed that they could force the end to occur and that they should do so because everyone could immediately begin enjoying her or his next world reward–no more waiting and no more struggling with the problems common to earthlings.

 

II.

I’m one of those non-eschatological and/or non-apocalyptic followers of Jesus. I don’t think God has ever or will ever make any plans for destroying the divinely-created world. I don’t buy for a second, as an example, any theologically literal readings of the story of Noah’s Ark. I believe there may well have been a great flood and a Noah who managed to escape death with a handful of his family members. What I don’t believe is the introductory part of the story that gives as a reason for the flood God’s anger at humanity and God’s sorrow that God had ever created our forebears to the point that God was willing to destroy them, wiping them and most animals off the face of the earth.  That sounds like something a frustrated human being might do, but not God. 

Brilliant 18-year-old Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein in that year of her life and had it published by the time she was 21. In her Gothic novel–and, by the way, the first ever sci-fi novel written in any language–Shelley has her Dr. Frankenstein become so disgusted with the life he has tried to create he leaves the creature for dead with thanksgiving that the creature is dead; at least he thought the creature was dead. That callous and uncaring attitude would certainly come back to haunt Viktor Frankenstein, but at the time he made the decision he was happy with it; and we understood his feeling.

God, though, isn’t one of us. God could not create humanity and bathe us in divine love–making provisions for both our failures and our successes, our potential and our frailty–only to let the divine surprise and the divine anger at human rebellion fester and grow until it had to explode in a divinely-ordained death sentence for almost the whole of humanity.  This issue of whether God is fundamentally a God of love or fundamentally a God of angry judgement–and the two absolutely canNOT go together–has a tremendous impact on how people who ponder such things are able to view where God fits into human life—past, present, and future. If God is capricious and arbitrary in the present and beats up on imperfect human beings in the here and now, I think there is every reason to believe that God will keep on being God, just this kind of God, in the future. If you’re not happy with the God of your present, you’ll likely not be happy with the God of your future.  Maya Angelou, a very wise woman, gives this advice, and I’m paraphrasing:  “If someone tells you who she or he is, you should believe it.”  I’d say exactly the same thing is true of God.

As some of you know, I don’t think God has a name and, therefore, never told anyone the divine name. The words we have for God describe God in some kind of way, but they don’t name God. The most famous of these descriptors is YHWH, four consonants eventually known as the tetragrammaton. 

From the burning bush, God told Moses to lead the Hebrews out of Egyptian slavery, and Moses said, “Sure thing. What could be easier than that? I’ll do it today, but whom shall I say has given me my orders?”

God’s voice from the burning bush said, “YHWH.” It’s obviously descriptive of the Deity though not a name, and it means, of all things, something like: I will be (future) who I am (present).

Once upon a time, Jesus’ followers thought, for some reason, there as an opportune moment to ask Jesus about when he was going to get on with becoming the Messiah their ancestors had dreamed of and longed for.  Jesus, of course, never became that Messiah.  That is another very important story, but we will not linger there today.

The disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 

He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that God has set by divine authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 

Jesus, in that answer, showed that he continued to refuse to let those who were his followers be preoccupied with the future.  He told them the future was God’s business, not theirs; and he meant that in the nicest possible way! What they needed to focus on, he told them, was the outpouring of God’s energy upon them in the here and now, which would allow them to serve strugglers in the present. God’s energy would burst within all the faithful, allowing them to be God’s witnesses, telling all over the place—all over the inhabited world they knew about—the story of the God Jesus had taught them, all over the place.

The world as we know it will end when it biologically and chemically self-destructs or when we crazy humans destroy it and each other. The first of these we can’t do anything about unless it is to take better care of our Planet; the latter of these we can do much about by living out and promoting the God of love whom we have learned about through Jesus.

Therefore, let’s concentrate on the present where we know for sure we can make a positive contribution to God’s people and God’s world. Now. The present is perpetual.

Sir Winston Churchill didn’t get heavily pious about his perspectives of the future. He said, “It is a mistake to look too far ahead. The chain of destiny can only be grasped one link at a time.” And Mark Van Doren, the poet and educator, put it this way: 

There is one thing we can do, and the happiest people are those who can do it to the limit of their ability. We can be completely present. We can be all here. We can give all our attention to the opportunity before us.

 

III.

Until quite recently, many of us around the world have, for a while, felt under economic siege—to name one, and in that survival mentality we generally haven’t thought a great deal about the future (except in churches where end-time sermons are frequently the main course) other than to wonder if we’ll have the funds to get by when tomorrow becomes today.  Our hard-earned money if we’re lucky enough to have enough to put aside—invested for our future, for our retirement years—lost over a period of months tremendous value. Only a handful of world citizens are wealthy enough not to have been bothered wondering or worrying about how they might pay for their children’s educational expenses or how they might be able to live independently in their twilight years. 

Remember when Americans were singing that now well-known song, “That’s the Night that the Lights Went Out on Wall Street”?  Tons of our fellow citizens began losing their jobs and/or pensions. All of us knew or knew about someone who lost her or his home.  The US financial strongholds in the minds of the average citizen–the big investment companies, the big mortgage companies, and the big auto manufacturers–were all suddenly in danger of going under. Suddenly, it seemed to us, the future had to take a back seat to the present. We had to approve bailouts for all of these failing business entities–one after another. 

No wait! No one asked us; they promised our money away without asking us. They promised our children’s money away without asking them or us. They who? Oh yeah. “They” are the elected leaders whom we elected to watch out for our best interests; that’s who.

Violent acts happen frequently enough and close enough that nearly all of us have felt that we need to worry about keeping safe today; thinking too much about the future just doesn’t work, just doesn’t make sense. I was stunned as I read along about the account of the ridiculously tragic shooting at the Lost Angeles airport a few days ago.  The forty-year-old gunman was from Wilmington, Delaware, and had gone to high school not far from where we gather today.  I guess he could have done what he did when he came home for a visit and not in LA.

Black Friday is supposed to give the retail world an indication of how much US citizens who have money to spend are going to invest in Christmas shopping in any given year.  My sister is usually the American who spends the most at Black Friday sales and is thus a great friend of the retail world.  Her husband says that she loves to get a bargain so much that if she saw cow manure with a “SALE” sign on it, she’d buy it.

So Black Friday is supposed to go well this year. Kim, my sister, is already making plans with her best friend since high school to begin hitting the sales even if doors open before Black Friday officially begins.  To let go of any money is a sign of optimism that the economic problems are going to continue to improve, but we don’t know.  The future is always out of our certain reach.  

We want to be able to get to the place where we focus on the present, the perpetual present, not because we are threatened in some kind of way forcing us to concentrate on getting by in the present. The future shouldn’t be either an escape for us so that we can avoid dealing with serious problems in the present or what we get to think about because we’re so well set in the present that we believe we have a right to claim our place in that future out there. Christianity has been guilty of pushing people to think in both of these wrong ways about the future. On the one hand, when life is good, it teaches that things will only get better for the faithful.  I didn’t say Jesus taught this.  I said the religion that named itself after him teaches this kind of thing.  On the other hand, when life is rough, Christian futurism has been escapism; it has been a counting on Jesus’ return or God’s intervention otherwise to bring human history or at least this chapter of it to a close. 

The bottom line is this. The future, whether we see it as our escape or our paradise, may or may not come to us. All any of us really has is the present. We have today, or more precisely, right now. The best connection to the future whatever it turns out to be is a well-lived present, a well-invested present. 

Amen.

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