Knowing where to begin can be tricky.
Let me start by saying that 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 can be a bit of a troublemaker.
Not on its own. On its own, I am sure it would be fine. The trouble comes when it gets mixed up with a contemporary human interpretation. A seemingly innocent scripture pressured into having one too many staggers home slurring nonsense about, ‘The world is ending. Now nothing matters.’
Not what Paul wrote. Yet typically, what we read.
It is what we read, but Paul does not even use the word “ending” to describe the state of the world. Nor does he insinuate with the absence of the term ending that the world is ending. In its place, Paul uses the phrase, “passing away.” A very different approach altogether.
“For the present form of this world is passing away.”
Not a vision of a world on the precipice of annihilation but an invitation to participate in a world that exists in a perpetual state of evolving, of regeneration, of resurrection. Two very different ways of understanding the world. A world is ending. A world is passing away. Paul may never use the word ‘ending,’ but this image takes place in the passage anyway. And, because this is what we read, it plays a role in what the passage means.
Humans have a thing for endings. They are a pretty big deal. Little endings. Big endings. We set most of our lives up around how we want things to end. Through this process of deciding how things should end, we know how and where, and why we should begin. Without the manufactured snapshot of an ending, there can be no rationale, no motivation, no meaning with which we can initiate a beginning.
In our everyday lives, we lean heavily on our creative, strategic abilities to define the end of each beginning. Most apparent are marriage vows, which make clear the intended end by beginning with the blatant ‘until death do us part’ statement. Less obvious, but equally as normative, are rituals such as birthing plans, college funds, and retirement investments. Our addiction to controlling where things end up hides in plain sight with organizational strategies, profit margins, and five-year visions. These socially appropriate, culturally encouraged schemes proclaim to the public where we intend our beginnings to end.
Although they make great launching pads, these predetermined endings rarely come to fruition. Sometimes they are better. Sometimes they are worse. Never are they final. More than realistic predictors of where we end up, drafted endings find themselves repurposed for different beginnings planned to arrive at an adaptation of other unattained endings. In the end, an ending never ends up not being much of an ending at all but more like a ‘passing away.’
‘Passing away’ makes for a problematic ending and a complicated beginning.
“Passing away” tastes like Elmer’s Glue and smells like mildew.’
The phrase may sound like a soft pitch, but it hits like a fastball. It is a wet blanket on an ego’s parade. An inconvenient phrase. An impossible sales pitch. A thick fog that will not lift on a day when we have a million places we need to be.
Endings flaunt details and deadlines. Strut around wearing flashy objectives laced with dazzling destinations. Endings sound like, “Thank God, that is over!” and, “Can you believe we pulled that off!”
No one wants to talk to the kid at the party wearing the shirt that says, ‘passing away.’ A celebration with soda water in place of champagne. A lifetime sentence to edit a paper written long ago ending with lines like, “When will this end?” and ‘Why does this matter?”
Paul presents a world of fluid liminality, and we paste over it with the certainty of an end and, in so doing, decode the meaning of the passage. In this contrast of perspectives, Paul asks if we are working on getting what we want or contributing to what the world most needs? In our beginnings, are we serving the world divinely created, or are we self-proclaimed divinities demanding that the world serve us? These answers unfold in our endings.
In the world that is passing away, we begin without knowing much of anything about the end. In a world where things as they are pass away, the beginning is releasing our grip on an outcome and falling headfirst into a suffering, broken world. In the world that is passing away, we fall in Love with being a participant in Creation’s story so completely that knowing how it all ends no longer matters so much. We swap in the badges of finality for an eternal evolution in faith. We begin not because we know where we are going and what we will be getting, but because we understand to whom we belong and trust the source of our Creation. Because we love our Creator and crave to participate as healers in the story of Creation.
Endings may be the competitive contracted jobs, but it is the ‘passing away’ gig that puts us on the payroll. We sign on to begin our endings because they promise the outcome of what we believe should or what we hope will happen. But in the suggestion that the world as it is, is passing away, Paul wants to know if we are willing to work without pay. Will we participate in a world of “almost there’s” and “not yet’s.” Will we begin without a starting place and labor when there is no end?
This is the more challenging practice; to fully engage in the world as it passes away without creating or committing to predetermined endings. This is also the practice that will be the least rewarded and the most misunderstood. The course that will be the least likely to be celebrated and the most likely to be condemned.
The world understood as ‘passing away’ is always beginning, and it is always ending. The entry point for participation is Love. A participation launched by the commitment to a possibility without any assurance of the outcome. Devotion to a process absent of any evidence that it will eliminate the preconceived problem.
1 Corinthians 7:29-31 invites us to live in a world outside of our control and fall deeply, madly in love with being out of control. In our voluntary ambiguity, we surrender security and hand over hopes to the only place they ever were anyway, in the breath of Creation, in the hands of Christ.