The proper place for what is to be made most prominent is the end.The Elements of Style, William Strunk
In other words, what comes at the end will seem most important. This rings true: a man’s last words, a poem’s last line, the closing scene of a movie or play. The curtain is lowered, a silent moment waits, and then, if all goes well, an uproarious applause. The end stays with us.
Most parents have learned this. “Take out the trash, wash your hands, and after you’ve done those things, come to the table for dinner.” With eager obedience, the child rushes to the dining room for food. Next time, it’ll be, “Before you come to the table for dinner, wash your hands. And before you wash your hands, take out the trash.”
I think this attention to what comes at the end is hardwired into us. I think it’s a God-given penchant for valuing the conclusion, because most significant of all is what comes at the end of time.
The New Testament writers constantly, patiently recall our attention to the promise of what’s coming.
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.2 Corinthians 4:16–18
I imagine the Bible authors biting their fists at how quickly our minds meander, wandering away from that which holds substance.
We are as distractible as my e-learning seven-year-old. He is expected to watch only the 6-minute YouTube video on fractions and definitely ignore the sidebar of videos about farting pirates and epic skateboarding fails. Since this is a constant issue, I sit next to him for the duration of his e-learning sessions and with Herculean restraint, calmly say, “Okay, son, time to go back to the assignment,” fifty-seven times per hour.
Everyone understands this problem of attention with a 7-year-old learning fractions on YouTube. And we know that social media, Netflix, and the host of other screen-based circuses daily absorb our thoughts. Even text messages can turn our eyes from something so obviously deserving of our focus as driving.
What matters most is in the future. But the ancient, the extinct, the mysteries of the past fascinate us. In Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet, Ransom finds himself, an ordinary college professor, face to face with the archangel of Mars (it’s a wild story). After some dialogue about the history of Mars and the spiritual trajectory of the cosmos, Ransom turns with awe to a nearby rock. A Martian artist has etched an episode of cosmic history into the rock’s side, and Ransom is drawn to the idea that this very rock was present when the event unfolded eons ago. With parental restraint, the archangel redirects Ransom. “You do reverence to nothings and pass by what is really great.”
Our wonder at ancient things, made holy by their distance from us, is justified. We have much to learn. We’re proud of ourselves when we devise new ways to learn. These lessons, however, are meant to train us for the life to come. They are a means to an end.
Probably most often, the past consumes us in the form of regrets and/or nostalgia. Both are forms of judgment on the past and make it difficult for us to learn its wisdom.
As for the present, it is, of course, necessary and real. Just because what comes at the end is most important doesn’t mean that the present has no significance. God delights in daily moments of surprise (as it turns out, farting pirates are hilarious). God energizes the small faithfulness of doing the dishes for the fourth time today. God grieves even more than us for the current anguish of humankind, the tangle of selfishness and neediness that we’ve got ourselves into. These moments matter.
The intensity of today’s moments and the wonder of ancient yesterday become distractions only when they become bigger to us than the promises ahead.
The Bible concludes with a herald of newness:
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.
‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”Revelation 21:3–5
As we argue about what’s most important right now—the economy vs. the death count, e-learning vs. parents’ sanity, freedom vs. restraint—let’s keep the end in mind. The light from the past is dim but beautiful. The light in the present is better when it’s not LED. The light of our future with God is brighter than the sun, but our eyes were made for taking it in. The longer we look, the better we see.