I have currently been reading The Eternal Now by Paul Tillich. The book is a collection of sermons by the great 20th century existential theologian. Even though the book is a collection of sermons, rather than a sustained treatise/argument, the overall thrust of the book is examining how we as humans, and specifically as Christians, deal with the passage of time. And in the middle of the book is the sermon from which the book derives its title, “The Eternal Now.”
In the sermon, he discusses the mystery of the future and the mystery of the past. As humans, we are simultaneously excited about the future and anxious about the future, whether it is the immediate future (like the awaiting news of my wife’s internship placement) or the distant future (like the excitement/anxiety of wondering what my life will amount to) or the eternal future of life after death.
Not only do humans deal with the excitement and anxiety of the future, we also deal with the blessing and the curse of our past on an individual, a communal and national scale. We are able to free ourselves in some degree from the curses of the past through repentance and forgiveness, according to Tillich (pp. 88-89).
However, over both our future and our past stands the Triune God who is Eternal, the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. And the Eternally Relational God wishes to relate to us, to me, in the present. He wants to be with me in my excitement and anxiety about the future, while also helping me to experience freedom from my past, but more than anything else, I believe, He wants to be with me in the present.
And yet, as Tillich explains, “The riddle of the present is the deepest of all the riddles of time” (p. 90), for as quickly as we acknowledge the present, it is gone. However, the present moment is all that I have. No matter how much I try, I cannot fully know the past, nor do I really have any idea of the future. (I do believe in reaping what you sow, but Job is a clear example that life is not always like that.) While the past and the future are important, what is most important is the present, which is ever fleeting, but where I live. And in each new moment, I am given the opportunity to be alive to what God is doing in me, through me, and around me. Or as Tillich writes, “We live in it [the present] and it is renewed for us in every new ‘present.’ This is possible because every moment of time reaches into the eternal” (p. 90). If God is ever and always present, whether I notice Him or not, then the eternal is always and forever breaking into the present.
Not everyone is able to experience the present. To quote Tillich at length here:
People who are never aware of this dimension lose the possibility of resting in the present. As the letter to the Hebrews describes it, they never enter into the divine rest. They are held by the past and cannot separate themselves from it, or they escape towards the future, unable to rest in the present. They have not entered the eternal rest which stops the flux of time and gives us the blessing of the present. Perhaps this is the most conspicuous characteristic of our period, especially in the western world and particularly in this country. It lacks the courage to accept ‘presence’ because it has los the dimension of the eternal (p. 90-91).
We as a culture are so consumed with either the future or the past that we have forgotten what it means to be alive and rest in the present moment. Whether it is a new job promotion to work towards, a degree, saving for a house or a new car, or even something as simple as a long list of “to-dos” before the day is over, we are a culture in constant motion, many times unaware of the Eternal breaking into our present and stopping to simply rest in the presence of the Triune God.
I am just as guilty as anyone when it comes to slowing down, stopping, and resting in the Presence. For instance, since learning that Claire and I will be moving to Evanston, WY for her internship, I have had to fight not to want to make every plan right now, even though we will not move until July. It took a conscious effort to simply want to celebrate that Claire was placed at her top choice, instead of making plans about a move over four months away.
But food and thoughtful eating can help in this area…to stop, slow down, and literally savor the present moment. Thoughtful, intentional eating is an activity which demands that one be ever cognizant of the present. Every bite of food is a fleeting moment of pleasure and delight—if I am lucky it will last maybe 15 seconds. And I as the eater must continually engage with each bite in order to fully taste it, which takes concentrated effort over an extended period of time. Yes, I can, and often do, eat just to eat, whether it is due to thoughtlessness or a lack of time to enjoy the food, but in those instances I rarely fully enjoy the food. When I do slow down and intentionally eat, I enjoy the food that much more, whether I am dining at a fine restaurant or simply eating an orange from the tree in my backyard.
In the book of Ecclesiastes, the author gives a summary statement five times throughout the book, “I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is a gift of God” (Ecclesiastes 3:12-13; see also Ecclesiastes 2:24-25; 5:18; 8:15; 9:7). Like food, being open to God in the present moment requires a certain concentrated effort. It is easy to go through each moment and each day oblivious to the reality of the work of the Triune God, just like it is easy to go through a meal without ever being fully aware of all of the flavors. Being aware of God’s presence and work in this moment also requires training, just like enjoying an elaborate meal. I am not simply going to wake up one day and be able to sense God’s movement if I have not slowly trained myself how to discern his gentle stirrings throughout the day. Nor am I going to be able to walk into The French Laundry and enjoy Chef Keller’s cooking if my eating habits have mainly consisted of driving through a drive-thru, eating alone in my car on my way to the next thing on my schedule.
Through thoughtful eating, maybe it is possible to train ourselves to enter more fully into God’s promised rest where the anxiety of the future and the shackles of the past disappear for a little while, at least, and we are simply able to sit with the One who loves us perfectly now in the present.