What Remains

I’m fascinated by fog.

In the summer, it’s burned away by the early sun before I have a chance to enjoy it.  But now, with the advent of fall approaching, I find that if I get out at dawn I can find it settled here and there, lingering in dips and valleys.

As always, when I encounter the fog, I think of James 4:14:

Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.

As I was walking back home the other day through the remnants of fog that remained from the morning, it occurred to me that before noon it would all be gone with no trace it had ever been there at all.  Rain leaves puddles, rivulets, damp.  Wind breaks branches, bends grasses, moves leaves.  But fog comes and goes leaving no evidence of itself.  It disappears as though it was never there.

We live in strange times – though I suspect in my heart that all humans who have lived, at one point or another, believe they have lived in strange times.  And in our attempts to navigate the world, we try to put down anchors that will linger: reminders of who we are and what we’ve done. We strive to be remembered.  And we spend tremendous amounts of time and energy to do these things.

It’s disconcerting, then, to think that the vast majority of human striving is futile, since none of it is meant to endure.  A fascinating article from Discover magazine once explored the concept of “earth without people”: that is, if humanity were to suddenly disappear, how long would it take for everything we’ve wrought – our cities, our projects, every trace of our existence – to disappear?

The answer is “not very long in the grand scheme of things.”  If humans disappeared from New York City, scientists posit, 300 years later most bridges would have collapsed, oaks and maples would have reclaimed the land, Central Park and the subway system would have all but vanished, and most modern buildings would long be gone.  In 20,000 years, they theorize, glaciers would “[scrape] the landscape clean” and there would be no evidence humans had ever existed at all (source).  In terms of pure human achievement, we’re all building on sand in the knowledge that the coming tide will eventually wipe it all away.

But I don’t find this depressing.  If anything, I find it freeing.  Because it is the great gift of the Spirit that to the insignificant, significance was given.  That to us with our vaporous lifespans, whose greatest works of human engineering, technology, and intelligence will inevitably collapse and fade, the chance to create an eternal and enduring legacy was given.

“Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain,” 1 Corinthians 15:58 promises.  It serves as a twin to the despair and futility of Ecclesiastes: a promise of hope, longevity, and legacy for those who labor in the Lord.  And it reminds me that I can create something, or many somethings, that will last and have resonance both now and in the hereafter.

It also reminds me of what my priorities are.  If what is done in the Lord and for the Lord and of the Lord is what will remain, then the rest of it all falls away.  And when I think about my life in those terms, then it becomes easy to make choices, to set priorities, and to make decisions.  What will last?  What will linger?  What do I want to build that will remain?

I suppose that’s why it makes me smile that Jesus named Peter “the rock.”  (Matt. 16:18).  A funny, strong, enduring name to give a man of flesh with a life of vapor.  But Jesus knew: what is of God is what will last.  Our labors of love in the Spirit will outlast the most sophisticated and enduring works built by human hands.

And when we know that, too, it makes life a whole lot simpler.

 

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