The Passages of Time

Today marks the 25th anniversary of my father’s death. Dad was a person of sterling integrity as well as tremendous love for my mother and their eight children. But the real legacy he left us was a deep respect for, and the unwavering pursuit of, truth. For dad the eternal verities were dearer than life itself. Perhaps I did not fully appreciate his true genius in my younger days, but time has a way of changing our perspectives. What astounds me today is that a quarter of a century has passed away which, in retrospect, feels like a year at best.

Back when my father was just a small child, Albert Einstein discovered the truth that time is not a constant but rather a variable. True, because for us time feels like something that becomes more compressed the longer we measure it. It behaves like those layers of silt and debris which settle and are flattened into geologic formations so that one inch of sandstone might represent 10,000 years of earth’s history.

Death is a kind of permanent marker on the scale of time, a poignant reminder of just how frail and transient everything in our world really is. As a physical reminder of that reality I like to keep two small frames hanging on the living room wall. Ensconced in those frames are a couple of fossilized creatures called Ammonites, dating from the mid-Cretaceous period. These exquisitely spiraled mollusks swam of the coast of Madagascar some 110 million years back in time, yet they look like they might have been scooped up from the sea floor just an hour ago.

To put their real age in terms that we can relate to, one would need to take the entire population of the city of Philadelphia and arrange the total life span of each and every citizen in sequence, placed end to end. In other words, those well preserved sea creatures have been dead for a period of time representing 1.5 million lifetimes! I ponder that enormous span of time every time I glance up at those fossils, still so lifelike that they seemingly could be still swimming in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. Yet complex life forms had already been thriving on the earth for some 400 million years by the time my little Ammonite friends made their all too brief appearances. Such a span represents the combined expectant lifetimes of every resident of both Houston AND Los Angeles – stacked end to end. That means that, based upon the average life span of today’s American, it would require 7.5 million lifetimes (or about 20 million human generations) to reach back in time to the beginnings of multi-cellular life forms on earth.

But time is still a relative measurement, not an absolute, which is why time, be it 25 years or 250 million years, is at best an instant in the vast mind of God. My father believed implicitly that this was true even though he might never be able to comprehend it rationally, any more than we can do so today. But dad understood that there was a very different kind of time which is both absolute and limitless. Theologians call it eternity – the time which encompasses and wholly absorbs the cosmic or linear time which we sense. Eternity represents the transformation of every historical time frame into the unending, eternal present. We know this must be true only because for God there is no past or future, only the present, and time, like the cosmos it delineates, is all part of his creation

Eternity represents a dimension which we cannot experience here and now even as we are inexorably being drawn towards it via the relentless passage of chronology. But in our mind we can dimly sense eternal time because it is the mind which links us to God, and therefore to his vision of time. This sensation occurs whenever we recall and compress past events into a single integrated thought which we call a memory. For while time may constrain our bodies it cannot contain our minds which have the ability to skip through time like a stone skipping across the water’s surface.

My father is as real and present to me today in my memory as he ever was walking the streets of Denver. His physical presence is absent, true, but his spirit continues to dwell in some unknown dimension or place where time is no longer the master. To him the past 25 years are most likely as 25 seconds – or nothing at all. So the next time I get stuck in traffic or my kids can’t seem to show up on time, I need to think about my father and realize that in no time at all I too will probably be at his side, gleefully smashing some large, domineering clock in the halls of eternity.

I owe a great deal to my father not only for the gift of life but for the truths that he impressed upon my mind at a young and tender age. He taught all of his children to be honest, just, and merciful in their dealings with others, not only in words but by setting an example. He daily made time for God, insisting that faith  was every person’s first responsibility. Above all he lived obediently to that faith. To this day I can see his ruddy, smiling person laboring over his beloved fruit trees whenever I hear the first Psalm – so very reminiscent of my dad.

Happy the man who follows not the counsel of the wicked, nor delights in the way of sinners, nor sits in the company of the insolent,  but delights in the law of the Lord, and meditates on His law day and night.

He is like a tree planted near running water that yields its fruit in due season, and whose leaves never wither. Whatever he does prospers.

Amen, and rest in peace, dad.

Francis J. Pierson  +a.m.d.g.

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