“Forever” —it’s not a concept for the small of mind, or the small of years, for that matter. Having passed the half-century mark myself a few years ago, my perspective on “forever” has changed and grown, expanded, a least a little bit. When I was 6 or 7, my definition of “forever” was framed by the number of seemingly interminable weeks until school let out for summer, or, in the season we currently enjoy, “forever” was the number of days between Thanksgiving and Christmas. That’s not true at all anymore, as now the lag time between the major holidays seems more like hours than days! This concept seems somewhat relative to birthdays. There’s a dear, sweet, and most exceptional lady in our church who is about a month shy of reaching 100! I’m sure Bess has a different perspective on eternity than mine, having herself experienced twice as many birthdays as have I. But I suspect that for both of us, and for all of us who breathe earth-air, we are pretty limited in our ability to even comprehend all that “forever” implies. We are sort of like small dogs looking upward from the base of a skyscraper. We can see the potential there, we can see that it is something huge and infinite, but in the end it is simply too big, too immense to take in, and we are still only small dogs. About all we can do is salute!
My thoughts on this matter (would they be timely or un–timely thoughts?) were sparked about a month ago when I spent a few days in retreat down at my ancestral homestead in Robert Lee, Texas. I got up early one morning to enjoy some quiet coffee-drinking moments sitting under the boughs of a tall Arizona Cypress tree my granddaddy Key planted some 85 years ago. At that same time he planted multiple rows of cedar posts, installed to keep the sheep and goats out of my grandmother’s lush St. Augustine lawn. (There was disproportionate hell to pay from my diminutive grandmother when livestock found their way onto the greener grass; usually it was caused when some of us city kids forgot to shut the gate behind us. Granddaddy (being an expert on such) paid it (the hell) graciously, then went outside and sat in a chair under this same tree). Just 20 feet away from this spot stands the tiny frame house he had built for his young family early during the last century; while I was there enjoying my granddaddy’s tree, in that same house at the same time my three much older brothers—his grandsons—were having a snoring contest that actually drowned-out the birdsong and highway noise from the north! As I sat there contemplating, I was impressed to be surrounded on all sides by enduring physical evidences of the work of my grandfather’s hands. When I’m there–rare escapes from the pace of life and work and burdens of schedule-driven constraints back home–to me, it is as it always has been, and at least in a small way, time stands still. For me, that house, that yard, that tree, those fence posts—even the three lazy brothers “sawing away” in the house—they are a part of my forever. But they won’t always be. Not forever. At least not in this world.
Here’s where I become the diminutive dog looking up at the skyscraper again, and inescapable present realities quickly remind me that my perception of forever is hopelessly myopic. My granddaddy is long dead, his chair under the shade tree empty for some 35 years now. I have far more relatives in the country cemetery than in town anymore. The lush lawn is gone, now but a memory for the feet of my childhood, replaced by a sad carpet of dirt and thorny weeds much more suitable to boots than to bare feet. The once-straight and sturdy fence posts are leaning and rotting off at the ground level, now held up in a dysfunctionally co-dependent way by the fence wire they used to support. The sentinel tree itself is old and sparse of branch, precariously supported by a complex system of guy wires contrived to keep it off the house when it falls; and the house is shifting and sagging—not unlike the three older brothers…! And in the context of it all I have to admit that my own experience of forever is cracked and fading and yellowed around the edges, becoming rather brittle and precarious itself.
As I doggedly chew on these lofty concepts, it occurs to me that this concept of “forever” is almost wasted on human beings who have such a narrow visage of time. We tend to think in blocks of minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, seasons, years—each units that may seem like an eternity, or a blink–depending completely on how we’re passing the time or being passed by it. We are, after all, finite beings, wired to run—and ultimately run down. For such time-sensitive, calendar-bound, tightly-wound-clock-watching beings, embracing the true meaning of “forever” is probably like my brief experience with Trigonometry back in High School. It becomes apparently clear very quickly that I’m in it hopelessly over my head.
And so my thoughts shift for a moment to something more mundane, the insistent hunger pangs reminding me that it’s breakfast time, one more thing that goes with temporality. My life could be marked off in the distance between mealtimes! But that is another reminder about my place in the big picture. The same One who provides my meals and minutes and hours and days, changes the seasons and makes my calendar obsolete on a daily basis–is also in charge of this thing called “forever”. Though I may struggle to wrap my brain around such things, I remember that there’s Someone who does not. The Psalmist of old wrote about Him, a song of thanksgiving… and time. He said, “Enter into his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; Give thanks to him and praise his name. For the Lord is good and his love endures forever, his faithfulness continues through all generations.” In the midst of change and decay, which may seem to be the only (albeit unwelcome) constants, there is one thing that actually will last forever, perhaps two: God, and God’s love. Granddaddies and trees and houses and lawns and relatives and brothers—all will fade and vanish, perhaps ultimately without any lasting trace. But God’s faithful love will still be there. Forever. And in light of that certainty, there should be one other thing that also lasts forever and eternally—our thankful praises!
Maybe my dog understands more about this business than for which I give him credit. He sleeps soundly, eats voraciously, barks extravagantly, explores nature joyfully, welcomes energetically, and forgives instantly—all because he knows, or at least senses he has a master who loves him and will meet his every need. If I would never forget that I have the same thing in a Master, (a much better one than Riley has!), I’d spend my life large in praise-filled gratitude for all He’s done for me. I guess we’d better get in the practice of doing just that; if I understand it right, we’ll be doing it forever!