I spent a good chunk of last week in Winnipeg for our church’s national Assembly. So a quiet Monday morning back home would be an ideal time to begin sifting through four days of lectures, workshops, and conversation, coming up with some kind of a coherent “takeaway” from the variously inspiring, moving, frustrating, exhausting, and rewarding time spent with Mennonites from across Canada, right? Not really, as I turns out. Maybe that synthesis will come later. Today, my thoughts are running along different lines.
On Saturday morning, I had a delightful, hastily arranged breakfast at Stella’s Café with a friend who lives in Winnipeg. We talked about the peaks and valleys of pastoral ministries, about Christian higher education, about theology and the politics of denominations and conferences. Somewhere around the third cup of coffee, the conversation took an existential turn. I don’t remember what signaled the turn—something about getting older, perhaps? Or the experience of watching a church get along perfectly well without you once you leave? It doesn’t really matter. “You get to a point,” my friend said, “where you realize that one day we’re all going to be gone and everything we have done will only be remembered by a relatively small number of people.”
This is, of course, not exactly a blinding discovery. We all know that we will die. But for whatever reason this most obvious of truths really struck me as we sat there in Stella’s Café on a gloriously sunny Winnipeg morning. All the things that I think are so important, whatever I have managed to accomplish, whatever I have written, whatever words I have spoken, whatever tasks I have set my heart and mind to… Lost to the dull march of time. Remembered by a tiny few, if at all.
There is perspective in this realization, I suppose, if we are willing to accept it. We are, as the writer of Ecclesiastes says, a vapour, a mist. All of the projects that we think are so vitally important, all of the conferences and strategizing and agonized reflection upon this or that issue, all of the hand-wringing about the future of the church, all of our personal ambitions, the myriad ways we desperately seek to stake out our identities, the ways that we try to prove (to ourselves, mainly) that we’re not like those “other people” who don’t think or act correctly. Against the backdrop of cosmic time, these things seem almost comically insignificant. We are here for a few years, we run frantically around on the stage, we make a bit of noise, and then we’re gone. We leave barely a trace.
There was a gloriously clear blue sky as I flew back home yesterday. As far as the eye could see, there were vast swaths of prairie bisected by little rivulets of water or gravel or asphalt. Over and over, I kept thinking, We are so very, very small. A line from one of my favourite songs from David Gray called “Ain’t No Love” came to mind:
And waiting there in every pause That old familiar fear that claws you Tells you nothing ain’t no good Then pulling back you see it all Down here so laughable and small Hardly a quiver in the dirt
Yes, this is so often how it seems. Laughable and small… Hardly a quiver in the dirt.
Of course, there are two turns one could make at this point in the (increasingly depressing, I fear) conversation, one “irreligious” and one “religious.” We could say, Yes, we are small and insignificant—not nearly as important as we like to think! A recognition of our smallness should be a stern rebuke to the anthropocentric hubris that imagines that we are at the centre of the universe. We are not the apple of God’s (or anyone else’s) eye. The sooner we realize this and get on with our meaningless lives, the better! Or, we could take the (perhaps more familiar) turn and say something like, Given how small we are, isn’t it amazing that God has made us so important?! Just a little lower than the angels (or God), according to Psalm 8, with all kinds of exciting dominion to boot!
I’m skating between these two poles this morning, to be honest. I have little time for some of the more misanthropic, irreligious interpretations of human smallness, mostly because these interpretations are often accompanied by ethical exhortations that demand human uniqueness and significance to at least as great a degree as anything we might find in the bible. Similarly, I get weary of hearing the grandeur of the cosmos and the smallness of humanity as a setup or some kind of contrived backdrop for a bland reaffirmation of how special we humans are. This somehow seems not to do justice to the experience of the small and transitory nature of life, the recognition, however and whenever it comes, that we are not nearly as significant as we are often pleased to imagine.
The first response squishes us even deeper into the dirt without taking seriously some of the loftier aspects of our humanity, while the second one tries to drag us up into the clouds without actually wrestling with the fleeting nature of human existence. As is so often the case, somewhere in the middle seems a better, more honest place to camp.
The writer of Ecclesiastes says that the end of the matter—the best response to the fleeting nature of human existence—is to fear God and keep his commandments. Jesus makes things simultaneously easier and harder for us. Love God. Love each other. This is the way that we were made to quiver in the dirt. Because, of course, one of the deepest of Christian convictions is that God himself entered the dirt and showed us where it comes from and what it is for. Dirt is where love grows.