I spent much of Wednesday and Thursday traveling the back roads of Vermont and Massachusetts. Partly it was to see places I had not seen before in all the years I lived in the area, but it was also to see familiar places and take pleasure in their continuity.
Of course, nature is the most durable. To see a fine tree or a mountain as a child and then again as an adult is very consoling. We personally grow and change and ultimately die, but the land around us stays the same.
That’s a like of course. Not that we do not grow and die, but that nature stays the same. The magnificent Grand Canyon, which seems never to change, is constantly changing. Simply not at a pace we in our brief lives can sense. And from that fact, that even the world is changing, comes the longing for the eternally reliable. “O, thou who changest not, abide with me,” says the old hymn.
One hundred and almost sixty years ago a great sermon by Theodore Parker, radical and renegade Unitarian, set off a firestorm. It was called “The Transient and Permanent In Christianity.” He declared all the physical aspects, even Jesus himself, to be transient and ultimately trivial. You can imagine what an effect that had.
And yet, so many years later, we still cling to the transient in life. Who does not cherish the mementos of youth, the photographs and flotsam we store in drawers and boxes? Who does not enter into a familiar place – house, town, church, forest – and feel the peace of familiarity? But these are the very things that will vanish, the transient passengers of existence.
What about the permanent, then? Who, when faced with the choice, will take uncomfortable truth of our economically obese society over the comfortable illusion of our deserved good fortune. Who would give up the domesticated goodness of charity and manners before the wild eyed demands to take up the cross as the scriptures we revere tell us? Who would surrender the pleasing beauty of refined tastes to the fierce beauty of youth and those outside the norms of good taste?
We generally serve the transient and ignore the permanent. And then wonder why our lives are unsatisfied and empty. No, I shall not recommend Jesus, as Parker taught me that he too is transient. Let the paradox of what we worship dawn upon you. Our churches, our worship, our sanctuaries and solemn words are all transient. If even the Grand Canyon is mortal, what hubris is it of ours to think anything we say or do or make shall last forever?
Today I shall wander again in the woods of New England and upstate New York. Their longevity will console me, to be sure. But my ear will be listening for a heartbeat deeper than this. My eye will seek a horizon beyond the treeline. Surely, there must be something there; but if there is not, let me at least know that.