Courtesy of the National Park Service, Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, Douglass Bible
On Friday we earthlings had a crashing reminder of how little of the universe we can actually control when a meteorite, estimated to be about 50 feet in diameter, slammed into a sparsely populated area of Russia. For the first time in history, the event was captured in a multitude of videos and posted on the Internet almost immediately.
All weekend the news outlets have swirled with explanations and comparisons to past meteor hits. The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History reported a significant uptick in the number of people visiting to view the meteorite collection. Geologists interviewed on weekend news shows championed the importance of government funding for the study of minerals embedded in meteorites—most too small to catch the attention of anyone other than scientists.
Of course, attention also turned to the biggest rock of all—the six-mile wide asteroid that left a 150-mile crater off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula 65 million years ago. According to a PBS report—and most scientific studies—that unexpected chunk of space junk produced so much dust that it darkened and chilled the earth. And when the dust settled, the greenhouse gases produced by the impact caused temperatures to sky-rocket, and the two extremes killed 70% of Earth’s plant and animal life.
At the same time that the tiny piece of rock created chaos in Russia, scientists also had their eye on another much bigger asteroid passing within 17,000 miles of Earth. And every news outlet acknowledged that, as powerful as we human beings are, should such an event happen today, we could do nothing to stop it, just as the dinosaurs could do nothing to prevent their extinction.
Now for a worrier like me, all this hoopla could have shifted my anxiety into high gear—enough to send me over an emotional cliff. This time, though, the event coincided with Lent, when I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about what the crucifixion means for me in this life and the next. Born into an extended family of evangelicals who filled my mind with the horror of a fiery hell, I was taught that my only measure of control was complete surrender to a God of angry vengeance.
As an adult, I’ve chosen a faith that focuses more on God’s grace. But it’s taken me a lifetime to put away the fear and anxiety of having so little control. And now I understand that, for me, focusing so much on the afterlife robs me of the now-life—a sometimes harrowing but mostly joyful journey through an astonishing world.
Writers have been telling us this since the advent of the printed word. Harper Lee’s Miss Maudie described in To Kill a Mockingbird a group of Christians who are so preoccupied with the next world that they’ve forgotten how to live in the present world. Emily Dickinson wrote that immortality was “So huge, so hopeless to conceive [that] / Parting is all we know of heaven, / and all we need of hell.”
And so I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ll try harder to leave the afterlife to God—that I’ll think about it less and make the most of the gift of this present life. I can no more control how much time I get to have between this known life and that other unknown life than I can change the trajectory of an asteroid that may come crashing into our planet.
But as I focus on the meaning of Lent, the example Christ set for how to live in this world, I understand that I’ve been given a pretty good model. He broke bread and drank wine with his friends. He allowed himself the luxury of having his tired feet anointed with expensive oil, even though self-righteous people criticized him for it. He never forgot the least among us—doing what he could in the time he was given to make a difference for someone in need. And he found time away from the needy crowd to center himself and commune with the Spirit.
Not a bad example, is it? Even if you don’t share my faith. Even if you don’t believe in the afterlife. Even if you worry about that meteor that might come crashing into the Earth.
So come walk beside me now. Tell me your stories of the joy of this present journey.