I had not revisited my high school in years. So on a trip to my hometown I decided to enter that old war zone of my adolecense. You’d think after 26 years I would feel dominant enough to own the place; but the old memories of insecurity that were buried alive reared their ugly heads. I remembered the gut wrenching anxiety I had on the first day of school when everybody was looking to see who had changed, who had filled in, who had grown, and who had acne. I remembered walking down the hall after I made what I thought was a terrifying decision to part my hair in the middle instead of on the side that morning. I saw the “burnout bench” where the druggies would intimidate anyone who stared too long. I recalled John Bubala dressing up in a toga and sitting outside with the “Breakfast Club”.
Passing kids in the hall, I battled thoughts of anonymity as the students had no idea who I am. I was just coming to terms with who I am, so how could they know? I saw in their faces the same false front I put up, like “this is our time, this is our place.” If only I could tell them how temporary they are and how high school is a tiny world. As I walked towards the gym a vain thought hit me: “go and see if you’re still on the Wall of Fame”. We called it the “Wall of Shame” at the time but today I prefer “Wall of Fame” because the older I get the better I used to be. To my surprise I was still there! It took my eyes a second to adjust as my mind recalled the day the team pictures were taken on the tennis courts. I remembered it was a windy day and it was cool to find something to make a joke about the picture taking process.
Just then a few kids walked past as I was staring at me, and I wanted to shout out, “hey look, this is me!” Then I realized they probably wouldn’t believe me since I had hair back then. So in another vain attempt to avoid the inevitable futility of life, in case they decided to bump me for good and make room for future athletes, I decided to take a picture of me. Just for evidence.
The whole experience set my mind in a domino effect of existential thoughts about the purpose and significance of life. I recalled skeptic John Paul Sartre’s comment about long life: “whether it’s a few months or a few years matters very little once you’ve lost eternity.” To be sure, I had dealt with these thoughts years ago which lead me to Christ. But they hit me in a new way on my unplanned reunion at high school.
Psychologists tell us one of the secrets to a productive life is having a feeling of significance. The search for significance is a topic written about by many authors in the last 30 years. The question is, where lies that path towards significance? I used to think that maybe if I had just won Wimbledon, I could get into the real tennis hall of fame in Newport R.I., then I could be significant forever. It would sure beat the high school Wall of Fame because I would get a bronze of my head! Or win 7 Wimbledon titles like Pete Sampras, then for sure nobody would forget me.
But I uncovered a piece of trivia about a man named Willie Renshaw who won 6 Wimbledon’s in a row in the 1880’s. I’m sure he was quite the name at the time. But anybody know who Willie Renshaw is today? No. And more importantly, where is Willie now? I’m thankful I realized that tennis, like any endeavor, is something to do while here, but is not an end in itself. It can be a medium for kingdom living, but is no substitute for eternal significance.
So what are we living for and what is the path for transcendance? I reasoned no matter how good I was in my flesh, it only counted for this world. And Jesus said this world is passing away. If Jesus transcended this world by rising from the dead, maybe he’s something of an authority on issues of existence, and anything he said might be worth listening to. He was profound, “what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his own soul in hell?” He said life continues beyond the grave, with every man heading towards one of two destinations, heaven or hell. Though this life is important in terms of the choices we make, apparantly in light of eternity our self efforts at eternal significance are futile.
The hunger for eternal significance is built into the human soul. The desire for transcendance is a primary motive of all men, whether they actually achieve fame or not. It motivated the Caesars, Alexander the Great, Ghengis Kahn, Columbus, Marco Polo, Magellan, Desoto and many others. Yet where are they now is the bigger question. Sheer force of will was enough to overcome many obstacles but not death. Even Napolean, the most famous world figure of his day, is scarcely a name mentioned but by a few students in history classes around the world in a given day. He doesn’t change the lives of most of us today. And though records can be kept for centuries, man is incapable of caring long term.
Throughout history man makes one of two mental errors regarding eternal significance. One is that stature in this life automatically translates into stature in the next life. The Pharoahs of Egypt believed this and tried desparately to hold onto this life into the next. To be sure blessing in this life does come from God. But not for the reasons men think. Life was never meant to be consumed on oneself. A different dynamic is needed for stature in the next life.
Jesus described this dynamic in his story of the rich man and Lazarus in what is known as the Great Reversal. The rich man had all the comfort here on earth but snubbed his nose at those less fortunate such as Lazarus. Not realizing the silent power that allowed him to make money so easily, he reasoned that those who fail must be lazy. “Be self-made like me” he may have said. But Jesus said there will be a Great Reversal, where people we’ve never heard of, serving the Lord in obscurity, will be risen up to rule different parts of his kingdom. “You come up here” he’ll say to some, and to others “you step down and go over there”.
The second error man makes is that he can be rewarded in both this life and the next. While it’s true that there may be some overlap of rewards on earth and heaven for those who serve him, rewards are primarily in one place or the other. Jesus observed the Pharisees parading their prominence and position in front of others and told his disciples, “truly they have their reward in full” and that meant here. We get the idea that Paul wasn’t deceived by the futility of earthly awards and was living for the next world: “there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness.” Reminds me of Jim Elliot’s perspective of the Christian life: “he is no fool to give what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
So where can we find eternal significance? Do we have to sell our souls for worldly fame? We can do one of two things. We can take a stone or clay tablet and inscribe our names into it, go out in some field and bury it as deep into the ground as possible. And hopefully, somebody may pull it up in a couple of hundred years, read it, perhaps translate it, and think about who we we’re for a few seconds (even though this will do nothing for our state at that time). This was the rationale of pagans. Sennecharib, as king of Assyria was a household name and one of the most powerful monarchs in the history of the world, tried this when he wrote on his prism in 700 B.C.:
“Sennacherib. the great king, the mighty king, king of the world, king of Assyria…favorite of the great gods…first of all princes…the gods of Assyria, my lords, I have established for all time.”
He was remembered perhaps but definately not “established” for all time as Ninevah is a pile of ruins today. The Pharoah’s tried to hold onto this life and squeeze it into eternity for all it’s worth. The Egyptians mummified their kings and placed them in tombs with everything they might need for passage into the next life in what is a basic misassessment of eternity. They assumed that stature in this life automatically translates into prominence in the next. Here’s what one Pharoah wrote on the Shabaka Stone:
“I was the maker of myself, in that I formed myself according to my desire and in accord with my heart.”
Really? He formed himself according to his desire? Last time I checked, no man is self existent, has nothing to do with being here and no power to thwart death. The ghoulish features of the mummies testify that they had no control over death. Mummification was a noble attempt at holding onto this life into the next. But the assumptions had fundamental defects as “perishable cannot inherit the imperishable” (I Cor.15:50). A change in the nature of man was needed. Differences in worldviews aren’t just a modern phenomenon. Contrast Pharoah’s attitude with the ancient wisdom from Psalm 49 that has a different perspective. They both can’t right, so which is correct?
“For all can see that wise men die…and leave their wealth for others. Their tombs will remain their houses forever…though they had named lands after themselves. But man, despite his riches, does not endure, he is like the beasts that perish. This is the fate of those who trust in themselves, and of their followers, who approve their sayings. Like sheep they are destined for the grave, and death will feed on them…Do not be overawed when a man grows rich, when the splendor of his house increases; for he will take nothing with him when he dies.”
Psalm 49 (selected verses)
Notice the deterioration of those who have sold their souls for prominence in this life? The world always bites it’s own. You live by the ways of the world, you die by them.
There is a second option in living forever: accept the righteousness of Christ on our behalf. Not only are we dust in terms of bodily chemisty, we’re actually sinners on a moral level who have made a mess of things. But our helplessness doesn’t have to be our hopelessness. God made a beeline for this planet, penetrated our daily grind, and in a messy conflict with a cursed world, procured our salvation from insignificance with the greatest accomplishment known to man.
Stature and significance are not ungodly pursuits, and treasures and rewards God invented. What Jesus clarified was to seek the riches of heaven as the reward of a righteouss life. Wordly stature is wrought with the competitive attitude, “I’m better than you and have superior flesh”, which heaven has no part of.
Our names can ring down the corridors of God’s Hall of Fame for all eternity if we serve him faithfully. Let’s hold our trophies loosely and agree with C.S. Lewis: “aim for this world and you get neither this world or the next. Aim for heaven and you get this world thrown in.” Which are you going to believe, God’s words or the world ways? Don’t ask Pharoah or Sennacherib because they can’t help you.
Copyright 2010 by Scott Chandler. All rights reserved.