Educating for eternity
Grace and Truth: A word from pastorsby Sara Dick
I walk past the school motto “Educating for Eternity” daily and—daily—I am tempted to disparage it. What exactly does eternity require? Accurate arithmetic? Physical education? Bible memorization? Good spelling?
Eternity is not a subject I, as a Gen Xer, am inclined to study seriously. Having been born into a Cold War and a nation rife with greed, I haven’t found eternity nearly as pressing for my attention as the troubles of this world. My peers and I are more likely to speak of eternity ironically than earnestly.
Take the 1997 movie The Sweet Hereafter, in which a school bus skids into a frozen lake and sinks. Many of the children are killed or severely injured, and the town is left to deal with unspeakable loss. There is nothing sweet about their hereafter, which consists only of what they can see and touch and hear—and mourn. So, too, has been my picture of the hereafter.
But Isaiah calls God “the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy” (57:15). The prophet claims that God resides not only in the current moment (the here-and-now that consumes our attention), as my generation easily assumes, but also in the eternal, and possibly sweet, hereafter.
And Jesus? Clearly, Jesus does not share my squeamishness about educating for eternity. He educated for eternity everywhere. His followers and challengers focused on eternity in personal terms: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus is asked this question in each of the first three Gospels—twice in Luke. The Gospel of John is so chock-full of eternal life we’ll have to return to it another day.
In Luke, the first person to inquire about eternal life is a lawyer testing Jesus (10:25).
Eventually, the lawyer comes up with the right answer: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus agrees, and then offers the story of a priest, a Levite and a Samaritan to clarify what kind of person inherits eternal life: one who offers extreme neighborliness. One who fixes lunch for a homeless family. One who listens compassionately to someone in the midst of a mess of their own making.
That’s no easy curriculum to pursue. Just ask the priest, the Levite and the Samaritan.
The second person to inquire is a “certain ruler” (18:18), to whom Jesus responds by listing the Hebrew commandments as the requirements for eternal life. When the ruler affirms that he has done all those things, Jesus says there’s one more thing: Sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor. Moments later, Jesus adds that this requires giving up not only property but also parents and progeny, in order to receive heavenly treasure.
Again, no easy lesson plan for eternity here.
With a month or more of school already behind us, what are we about in our Sunday school classes and youth groups and worship services and community service work, if not Jesus’ form of education for eternity?
Aren’t we all planting seeds, the fruits of which we won’t likely see in our lifetimes? Don’t we educate our children for an unseen future that we hope might be more peaceful than the current times? Don’t we care for the dying, even though they are not long with us now?
We take the long, long view when we sit and pray with an elder suffering from dementia. We witness to “things not (yet) seen” when we read Bible stories and Shel Silverstein poems and science books with a child.
English poet Joseph Addison wrote a very long poem, of which several verses are included in the hymn “When all Thy Mercies, O My God.” Cynicism and bitterness have no place in his 18th-century style. The poem ends with verses bursting with the delight of having lived a life in service to “the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy”:
Through ev’ry period of my life
thy goodness I’ll pursue,
and after death, in distant worlds,
the glorious theme renew.
Through all eternity, to Thee
a joyful song I’ll raise,
but, oh, eternity’s too short
to utter all thy praise.
Sara Dick is associate pastor at Shalom Mennonite Church in Newton, Kan.
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