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WHAT EVERY HEART LONGS FOR. WHAT EVERY CHURCH CAN BE
By JAMES MACDONALD
David C. Cook Copyright © 2012 James MacDonald
All rights reserved.
A UNIVERSAL LONGING: TRANSCENDENCE
Say It in a Sentence: Deep in the soul of every human being is a longing for transcendence created within us by God Himself.
Stop! Did you skip the introduction? Please slow down and take time to read the material that prepares you to benefit most from these pages. Take a deep breath. Read the introduction carefully. Then you will be ready to begin. Thanks!
Something unusual captured the world's imagination at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia. If you think back and squint, you may be able to recall the surprising word hanging from the Sydney Harbour Bridge unveiled at the opening ceremony. When the torch was lit to launch this long-awaited crown for the land down under, the background sky was illumined by an Olympic display of fireworks. Just then a massive sign that hung on the bridge flashed to brilliance, and in a moment people around the globe read what God has placed inside each of us. The word was Eternity. What a strange word to select as a theme for the Olympics. Was it intended only as a motivator for the athletes soon to compete for record-book immortality? To the Aussies it was much more, as even its "copper plate" font was rooted in the history of the island continent. Understanding the word's significance leads us to the theme of this chapter and to where every discussion of the church and its purpose in the world must begin.
In November 1932 in Australia, a down-on-his-luck, World War I veteran named Arthur Stace was homeless and hopelessly addicted to alcohol. His life of gambling and petty crime had only worsened his poverty and driven him to suicidal depression. Having failed at everything he could think of to content the aching cavity in his soul, he stumbled one Sunday night into a church. In God's providence, preaching that evening was a man named John Ridley, who spoke on the subject of eternity. "You're on your way somewhere brother! And God made you to long for the place you're headed for." Ridley eloquently described the settled destination of every human being with the word eternity, repeating it again and again. Eternity, eternity, eternity! Those eight letters captured Stace's mind and demanded from his life a major course correction. As Ridley proclaimed the truth of every person's march toward eternity and the only gospel that prepares a soul for that inevitability, the God of the universe invaded Stace's soul. Conquered by the message of salvation and Christ's provision for his own eternity, Stace dedicated the rest of his life to doing what he could to help people find the God who had found him. Every day for more than thirty-five years, Stace rose before the sun, and after a cup of tea and a few moments in Bible reading, he'd go out into the streets of Sydney with a piece of chalk and write the word Eternity. Over and over, thousands of times Stace wrote this word in the same beautiful script. As the town awoke, people would see the word everywhere: on the sidewalk outside a coffee shop, on the backside of a street sign, and on the cornerstone at the base of a building. Eternity mysteriously appeared all over town. Somehow, instead of being insulted by the overtly spiritual message, people reported feeling strangely encouraged. From all walks of life, Sydney citizens were stumbling upon eternity scrawled in the most surprising places. Until 1956, no one knew where the writing came from. But they finally found him, Arthur Stace, and no one demanded he stop his daily discipline. Instead they supported, even celebrated, his graffitied message of the life to come. If you go to Sydney today, you can enter a particular government building and up inside the bell in one of the towers you can find the word written by Stace still legible more than fifty years later—Eternity. Stace died in 1967 at eighty-three years of age, but he left an impact that will last long after every chalk mark has faded. His gravestone reads, "Arthur Malcolm Stace—Mr. Eternity," a word he had written more than five hundred thousand times.
Thirty years after his death, the host country chose that word to express the longings of the world at the first Olympics of a new millennium. Eternity: it's a powerful word that penetrates deep into the soul of every human being. And every time we make a choice that detours our search for fulfillment, eternity shouts within us, "You're getting colder."
THE SEARCH FOR ETERNITY IS NOTHING NEW
He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man's heart.
Three thousand years before Arthur Stace, a man named Solomon, the wisest and richest man of all time, chronicled his own futile search for fulfillment in the timeless scripture of Ecclesiastes. If a human ever strolled down each conceivable avenue of potential satisfaction without finding it, that person was Solomon, the ancient king of Israel. Ecclesiastes details Solomon's experimentation with every pleasure, from constructing a palace so opulent it staggered world leaders to accumulating jewels and possessions that became innumerable. Solomon pursued advanced academic studies and sex with a different woman every day. He explored in-depth every possible iteration of the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Yet his tears of frustration are easily heard in the words "So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind." Solomon discovered what so many fail to realize: that history is a repetitive loop of personal futility and that every imaginable experience of the horizontal promises a fulfillment it never truly gives. In Ecclesiastes 3, Solomon turned his expression of frustration on the God who made him, concluding that God has "put eternity into man's heart." While there has been some debate among scholars about the meaning of ha'olam ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), most translations agree the best understanding is eternity. In his commentary on Ecclesiastes, Michael Eaton asserted, "'Eternity,' by far the commonest meaning, fits the context well, for the whole passage has been concerned with God's scheme of 'times.'" Eternity in this passage refers to our deep and abiding sense of something outside the boundaries of our senses. "Our consciousness of God is part of our nature, and the suppression of it is part of our sin (Romans 1:18–21)."
Tremper Longman continued by noting:
Since eternity is a divine attribute and since its counterpart, mortality, is something dreaded and feared, one would think that [Solomon] was pleased by this truth. However, the context makes it clear that he was not happy as a result of these observations about God's workings in the world and in the human heart—the verse is yet another cry of frustration on [Solomon's] part.
Eaton's summary of Solomon's state of mind is fitting: "[Solomon's] vast researches have found nothing in the finite earthly realm which can satisfy the human heart intellectually or practically." Solomon was crushed by the realization that on his own, he could not fashion a happiness or satisfaction that would endure beyond the momentary.
C. S. Lewis called it "the inconsolable longing" and admitted:
There have been times when I think we do not desire heaven, but more often I find myself wondering whether in our heart of hearts, we have ever desired anything else.... It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want.
WE LONG FOR ETERNITY BUT CAN'T FIND IT
Like Solomon, we cannot fashion happiness for ourselves either. I was aware of Ecclesiastes 3:11 for many years before the second part of the verse caught my full attention: "He has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end." If you're looking for an answer to the mystery of human misery, X marks the spot—Ecclesiastes 3:11b. The implications of Solomon's statement are staggering: people are looking for the eternity God created them to long for, but they can't find it on their own. Like a hungry man outside a locked gourmet restaurant, we know satisfaction is near but can't get to the food; like a blind man on the edge of the Grand Canyon, we feel the awesomeness close at hand with no capacity to take it in ourselves. Searching for eternity does not lead to finding until God Himself intercepts our wandering pursuit.
At the core, we are the same, and Solomon rightly observes that fulfillment must come from a source outside ourselves and beyond this world: "There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can ... have enjoyment?" What Solomon tried in vain to fill is woven into the fabric of human existence. Do you get it? God made you the way you are, and He made me the same. God designed us so that we can't find fulfillment or lasting enjoyment apart from this eternity. The busier we are trying to satisfy our deepest longing by good and bad horizontal means, the more likely we are to miss God's Vertical invitation to experience Him.
This eternal longing is given by the Almighty and separates us from all other created beings. A gift universally given to humankind, it lives in each member of your family. Each person on your street feels the emptiness deeply even if he or she can't articulate it. Every single citizen of the community surrounding you and your church aches this moment to have the cavity filled. All persons moving about in your city tonight have a deep desiring that achievements and accolades and back alleys of pleasure can never fulfill. As each new generation arrives, it believes itself unique but discovers in the end it is the same. This searching, deep in our souls, is a hunger that food can never feed, clothing can never cover, and shelter will never warm. At times it becomes a ravenous longing that demands satisfaction beyond our accomplishments and accumulations. Billionaires around the globe are miserable because in them this longing goes unfulfilled, while certain single parents with hungry children in mud huts are overflowing with joy because they have found this eternity.
OBSERVATION CONFIRMS WHAT SCRIPTURE REVEALS
In the Bible, Genesis 2:7 calls what makes us unique ruach ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), "spirit," or the "breath of life." It is what the Creator breathed into humanity that distinguishes us from all other living things. It's why you know deep inside that you are not an animal and didn't come from one. Even biological and physiological studies demonstrate clear separation between humans and animals. A 2005 study in Trends in Cognitive Sciences claims, "Humans have more cortical neurons than other mammals.... The outstanding intelligence of humans appears to result from a combination and enhancement of properties not found in non-human primates, such as theory of mind, imitation and language." Other studies have noted the differences between the "emotional center" of the brain in humans and animals. Even the secularist is compelled to admit scientifically that there are fundamental differences between human beings and animals. A complexity and consistency of emotion, the existence of conscience, and the capacity for empathy are just a few of the differences science might attribute to evolutionary advancement but acknowledges as real nonetheless. Every discussion of the nature of man or meaning, or ministry, must begin with this reality: humans are unique among the living in that there is in the center of each of us a hunger for something that the experiences of this planet cannot satisfy—a quest for eternity.
Why, then, does it seem that almost every book written about the mission of the church in the past twenty-five years has focused on the ways countries, cultures, even individuals are so different? Over and over we are exhorted to aim our churches' ministry at some point of demographic data and are deluged with the distinguishing characteristics of successive generations. We are taught to study our culture and contextualize the message to fit the uniqueness of the mass we seek to minister to. Is this helpful, or has it taken us off track? Is the church to be about scratching the minutiae of our unique itches, or is it about filling the vacuum of universal commonality installed in us by God?
MASLOW MISSED IT AT FIRST
In 1943, Abraham Maslow introduced his famous "hierarchy of needs." Based on several years of observing the most successful and intelligent members of society, Maslow concluded that all people have certain basic needs, which can be illustrated by a layered pyramid. At the base are human necessities like food, clothing, and shelter. Next in importance, Maslow claimed, was the need to be loved and to belong. In his original study, Maslow went on to argue that the highest need of humanity is self-actualization. "What a man can be, he must be," wrote Maslow, claiming that the crowning human desire was to "be all you can be." Interesting but incorrect.
In the 1971 book The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, Maslow acknowledged that his subjects were not satisfied in their own accomplishments and experiences but were looking for meaning beyond themselves, forcing him to amend his previous conclusions. "Transcendence refers to the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos." It's hard to find a college professor today who relates that Maslow reluctantly retracted his widely distributed conclusion that personal experience was ultimate and fulfilling. Yet so much of our thinking is based upon Maslow's errors and fails to account for his own admission that human longing could be fulfilled only in something outside the individual. Maslow realized in the end that the need for transcendence was much more pervasive than the need for self-actualization. Even among those who had not reached Maslow's standards for self-actualization, the recognition of longing for the transcendent was common. Wow, wow, wow!
FRANKL CONFIRMS MASLOW IN DEATH CAMP
During World War II, Viktor E. Frankl was a prisoner in the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp. In his book Man's Search for Meaning, Frankl chronicled his experience and found that, in order to survive the camp, it was necessary to cling to something outside of himself. Frankl wrote, "Being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone other than oneself—be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is—the more he actualizes himself."
Do you sense that same longing in your soul? Have you known the emptiness of looking for a satisfaction that doesn't arrive in that next raise or relationship or ...? This human condition is presented throughout the Scriptures and observed in the social sciences but not understood. Please be patient as I resist the temptation to rush to solutions and linger here with more evidence for those who doubt that God has installed this longing for something beyond ourselves. Everything I am bursting to share with you about church requires "buy in" on this foundational premise: that every human being shares this appetite for eternity.
ETERNITY EVEN IN THE DARKEST OF HUMAN SOULS
Back in college I heard a missionary speak on "eternity" from Ecclesiastes 3:11. His name was Don Richardson, and he had spent the best years of his life learning the Sawi language as a missionary to the cannibalistic, head-hunting people of Western New Guinea, Indonesia. Most people in ministry think that their assignments are tough for reasons particular to where they serve, and every pastor has a story about how his geography is tough terrain to build a church. However, not many can claim, like Don Richardson can, to be called to a Stone Age people whose language is unwritten and unknown. To make matters worse, the Sawi people in the 1950s still believed they proved their prowess by eating your brains and using your skull as a pillow.
So twisted was the Sawi mind-set of treachery and duplicity that when Richardson told them the story of Jesus' death, they saw Judas as the hero and applauded the account of Christ's betrayal! Try as he might, Richardson could find no way to bring the good news to this tribe that penetrated their dark minds. After watching fourteen vengeance-driven blood baths outside his front door, Richardson was ready to pack it in—and painfully conclude that he had located a people who were beyond reach. Surely here was a people in whose hearts there was no echo of eternity, a culture so darkened that not even a scent of searching could be seen in their souls. Having lived among them, Richardson felt forced to conclude that they had no desire beyond immediate gratification of their most base impulses. But he was wrong.
Excerpted from VERTICAL CHURCH by JAMES MACDONALD. Copyright © 2012 James MacDonald. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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