The children’s backpacks have been blessed, and not a moment too soon. Already they are loaded with indispensable provisions for the daily trek to school and back, even as the children are being loaded with things we believe are indispensable for life.
Modern backpacks are designed for heavy loads, and kids take full advantage, filling them with textbooks, notebooks, science projects, video games, lunch, snacks, water bottles, and the occasional mystery item. No one had a backpack when I was in school. The notebook or clipboard and two or three textbooks we carried were simply tucked under one arm, and off we went.
Several years ago researchers discovered that more than half of young students carry loads heavier than fifteen percent of their body weight – the limit recommended by the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. It may be no coincidence that a third of children in grades five through eight reported back pain that forced them to see a doctor, miss school, or skip athletic activities.
If we’re overloading children’s backpacks, imagine what we’re doing to children. One fourth-grader described how school was preparing her for life. “You have to do well in grade school,” she said, “so you can do well in high school. And you have to do well in high school so you can do well in college and get a good job and make lots of money. And then you die.” Is that how we’re preparing children for life? According to one fourth-grader it is. It’s true even in the church, where we ought to know better. And we ought to know better because Jesus is very clear in telling us better.
For many people, Christian faith is about living better in this life so we will receive an eternal reward in the next life, a dress rehearsal for what happens after death, an entrance exam that determines whether we make it into heaven. In that cosmology, there’s a natural world and a supernatural or spiritual world, with the spiritual being separate and better than the natural. The goal of life in this world is to get into life in that other world.
So we spend our lives loading our backpacks of faith with things we think we need: textbooks of scriptures, how-to manuals of religious practice and rules of life, notebooks of experience and wise advice, investment portfolios of right living and good deeds that we can cash in when we retire from this world. It can all become a heavy burden, heavy enough in some cases to drive us to doctors and therapists and cause us to miss some of the best this world has to offer. That’s not why Jesus came.
Jesus came to unload our backpacks and free us from that burden. He came to tell us and show us that the perfect life we’ve been dreaming about – what we call heaven or the kingdom of God – has come to us (Mark 1:15). He came to reveal the eternal dimensions of this present life and to help us begin living it fully. “I came that they may have life,” he said, “and have it abundantly” (John 10:10) – “real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of” (The Message). That life is spread upon the earth, he said, and people don’t see it (Gosp. Thomas, 113).
And why don’t we see it? We don’t see it, I think, in part because our vision is too grand, our sights too high, our aspirations too great. When we imagine encounters with God and the experience of eternity, extraordinary, powerful, life-altering, this-is-so-great-I-can’t-breathe moments get the spotlight. Those moments are memorable; they’re exhilarating; they can charge our batteries for years. But the big, dramatic moments in life don’t deserve all the credit. For many people such moments are rare or nonexistent. The little moments and experiences are the ones that count.
New research published in the journal Psychological Science suggests that mundane, everyday experiences bring us deeper pleasure today and unexpected, more-lasting happiness in the future. In other words, we might want to pay more attention to those routine days at the office; the morning walks; the slow cup of tea on a cool, rainy afternoon; the simple cup of water offered to someone who is thirsty. They are a good measure of how we live abundantly, and they may bring us greater joy when we recall them in the future.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Prince, claimed a designer knows he has reached perfection not when there is nothing left to add but when there is nothing left to take away. “Simplify, simplify” is the rule for perfection of life. Don’t keep adding more – more possessions, more status, more victories, more security – in the illusion that accumulation is the key to abundance. Let go of more; surrender more; start taking things out of the backpack you’ve been busy filling since you were a child.
To help us begin, God brings us into relationship with others who are trying to see and live that life, also. “From one ancestor,” St. Paul says, God “made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and [God] allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for [God] and find [God] – though indeed God is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:26-27).
God has given us our length of days and our places here in this company of fellow travelers so we can seek and find God, so we can be restored to the abundant life in which and for which we are created. God has brought us to this time in our lives, and to this place, and to these people so we can live abundantly, so we can live more and better life than we ever dreamed of, and so we can live it here and now.
Living abundantly doesn’t require that we avoid loss; that’s why God has a special blessing for those who mourn. It doesn’t require that we exercise great power; that’s why God blesses the gentle and lowly and merciful who surrender power. It doesn’t require that we win any contests; that’s why God blesses those who work for peace, for a life in which everyone wins. Living abundantly doesn’t require that our manner of living is admired by others; that’s why God blesses those who are persecuted because they live for God.
We have a lot to unload from our backpacks so we can live lightly and freely and abundantly the life God offers. What does that life look like for you?