We are very, very small. Consider for a moment that there are over 100 billion stars in the Milky Way alone, and that the Milky Way is only one of billions of galaxies. Try to fathom for a moment the unfathomable distance between each of these perpetually exploding balls of gas -- perhaps 20 million million miles between stars 1-- then head out to your front yard and look up. Reel, dizzy, under that spinning disco-ball -- do you feel appropriately humble?
Now try to get a grip on how short the last hour of your life was. Whether it was a monumental hour, jammed with exciting or tragic news, or a deadly dull hour spent staring blankly into your refrigerator trying to imagine up some dinner, it was awfully short, one 8,760th of a year. Consider that the technology of your childhood, seemingly so recent, is already obsolete. What kind of telephone did you use? What kind of computer? Remember when you could buy a soda pop for a dime? Probably only 45 men have lined up in the past 1,000 years before you, fathers of fathers in your family tree. How far back do you remember their names? Four generations? Five? How soon will you be forgotten?
God has set eternity in our hearts, an innate awareness of our smallness and a hunger for all that is lasting. We may sate it temporarily, but temporary is the key word to anything this life can offer. To have an eternal perspective is to take the long view... very long.
The realization that time is ticking has inspired centuries of poets and philosophers, even those who couldn't give a hoot about God. "Had we but world enough and time," wrote 17th century playboy Andrew Marvel, "this coyness, lady, were no crime." Hey, lady, if we were going to live forever, I wouldn't mind a little chastity. But life is short! Let's get busy.
"Carpe diem" -- seize the day! shouted the passionate Mr. Keating in Dead Poets Society. Find love, live with abandon, pursue your dreams, take a stand. You are not guaranteed tomorrow. Make today count. Even the lost and blind know this truth deep down. (Ecclesiastes 3:11)
Christians, aflame with this understanding, have made the most of short lives, changing the world in remarkable ways with the days they were given.
David Brainerd is one. Born some 60 years before the American Revolution, Brainerd was a missionary to the "heathen Indians" despite the fact that Native Americans and English colonists danced a deadly two-step all around him. Young Brainerd, kicked out of Yale for daring to associate with freewheeling religious types, struggled with despondence and a sickly nature, but determined that his life was not going to be in vain.
I can't even begin to imagine the hardships of a pioneering missionary in the 18th century. We are talking DIY house-building with no power tools, kill-and-cook-your-own campfire dinners, sleep on blankets that are not rated for below-freezing temperatures, get your weekly bath in the creek. We are talking hostile warriors with spears and no hesitation to poke you with them, rattlesnakes that share your living space, and no cell phone service. Unfazed, Brainerd forged into this wilderness and began reaching out to the Delaware Indians, who are said to have proclaimed, "The Great Spirit is with the Paleface!" Lonely enough to sometimes wish he were dead, hungry and depleted, Brainerd persevered for three years, turning down offers to take cushy pastorates along the way. After just a year at his outpost in Crossweeksung, New Jersey, he had established a 130-member church. He lived hard, he prayed hard, and he died of tuberculosis at just twenty-nine. But his legacy continued; Brainerd's biography inspired the likes of Adoniram Judson, William Carey, and Jim Elliot.
Jim Elliot, of course, is another example. In The Shadow of the Almighty has been used to fire up countless college students staring down parallel paths of success and sacrifice. I remember reading it on my parents' front porch, pen in hand, embellishing the pages with exclamation points aplenty. Here were men -- Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Pete Fleming, Ed McCully and Roger Youderian -- who lived like meteors, a brilliant flash and they were gone. Because of their furious love and absurd faith (a faith that burned also in the women they left behind), a tribe of Huaorani Indians in Ecuador, astonished, met Christ. "He is no fool," said Elliot, "who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose."
Saint had the same perspective, saying, "people who do not know the Lord ask why in the world we waste our lives as missionaries. They forget that they too are expending their lives... and when the bubble has burst they will have nothing of eternal significance to show for the years they have wasted." Giving their lives, they gained the crown of life.
What could I give? What would I gain? The answer to both questions was simple. My life.
1. Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything. (New York: Broadway Books, 2003), 27.
Excerpted from "Thirty Thousand Days", by Catherine Morgan. Used with permission.
Catherine Morgan lives in Colorado with her husband, Michael, a pastor. She is the author of Thirty Thousand Days: The Journey Home to God, and blogs at catherinesletters.com.
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