Vapor and Mist

Posted by Margaret Manning on June 6, 2017

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leafs a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.(1)

One of my most cherished memories is of the New England landscape in the fall. The vibrant colors from dogwood, sassafras, sumac, red oak, and maples can only be described as the finest artist’s palette of paints—crimsons and scarlets, purples, oranges and yellows splashed across the canvas. Making our pilgrimage each year to the local fair, the route transported my husband and me into that world of color, as the road would bend through picturesque towns and take us deeper and deeper into that fall canvas. Sadly, this beauty was transient. Fall rains and wind would come to fade and to muddle those colors. All that would remain were the dull browns melding and making their home in the dark soil that encompassed them.

Nothing gold can stay is the bittersweet reality Robert Frost calls to mind in his poem by the same name. The beauty of the yellow birch leaves, like the young flower of springtime fades and falls away. Frost laments all those moments of precious and profound beauty that are equally fleeting and transient. These experiences are the hardest hues to hold. Just like the fading vibrancy of the New England fall, our very lives and all we experience quickly pass before us in the blink of an eye.

The ephemeral nature of life is opined by artists and poets, philosophers and clerics around the world. Many of the world’s great religious traditions address the ephemeral nature of life. Buddhism identifies, for example, how suffering arises as a result of trying to hold onto the impermanent and the fleeting.(2) In Tibetan Buddhism, specifically, mandalas made from colored sand are created and dismantled in a ritual that symbolizes the transitory nature of material life. Likewise in Hinduism, cremation became a vehicle for expressing the ephemerality of bodily life.(3) The ancient Hebrew poets filled their stanzas with the acknowledgement that life is fleeting, short and temporary: “Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death—they are like the new grass of the morning: In the morning it springs up new, but by evening it is dry and withered.”(4) And springing out of the Hebrew tradition, Christianity reiterates this theme: “Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.”(5)

Robert Morris, Steam Work for Bellingham-II, ephemeral installation, 1974.

For many living in light of such realities today, the temptation is to try to hold onto whatever we think will anchor us to permanence. Or else, it is to abandon ourselves to eating, drinking, and being merry because tomorrow we die. But is there another way?

Christians believe in a God who entered into the ephemeral and the temporal in the person of Jesus. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus affirmed the teaching of his own Hebraic tradition when he encourages his listeners not to worry, but to trust the God who “arrays the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace.” Life is short, Jesus acknowledges, but the God who cares for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field will care for us. So we do not have to cling onto our lives or the treasures of this earth. As one commentator notes, “Just prior to his teaching on worrying…Jesus warns his listeners against storing up ephemeral treasure on earth… A central theme of his ministry and enacted in his own life, is that the proper way to respond to the nature of reality is to give away one’s life rather than hold on to it, to open our hands and let things go rather than to close our fist around them.”(6)

In embracing all that is ephemeral about life, Jesus opens and offers his life for others. In fact, Jesus extends an ironic invitation to accept ephemerality and death in order to truly find life—and to find life eternal. Not as simply an escape from death, but the eternal life that comes from a relationship with God in the here and now. Jesus prays for those who would follow him, “that they may know you the only true God” for in doing so they would find eternal life.(7) The challenge Jesus sets before those who would follow is the challenge to “die” to holding on; it is to choose—in this life where nothing gold can stay—what makes for life eternal.

 

Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.

 

(1) Robert Frost, “Nothing Gold Can Stay” from The Poetry of Robert Frost ed. by Edward Connery Lathem (New York: Henry Holt Publishers, 1969).
(2) The Norton Anthology of World Religions, “Buddhism.” Ed. Jack Miles (New York: Norton, 2015).
(3) Encyclopedia of Death and Dying, “Cremation,” Ed. Robert Kastenbaum (New York: Macmillan Reference, 2003).
(4) Psalm 90:5-6.
(5) James 4:14.
(6) Iain Provan, The NIV Application Commentary Series: Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Books, 2001), 60.
(7) John 17:3.