Expressing Deep Gratitude for God’s Merciful Gift of…Entropy?

Have you ever, even once, been motivated to give praise and thanks to the Lord when battling back against the physical effects of entropy on your home, your car, your other possessions…even your own body? Most of us, I suspect, would probably have to say no. In fact, we are probably far more likely to regard anyone who does respond with worship to the effects of entropy to be, well…at least a bit peculiar. For those who may be unfamiliar with the term, Webster’s offers the following definition:

the degradation of the matter and energy in the universe to an ultimate state of inert uniformity; a process of degradation or running down or a trend to disorder; chaos, disorganization, randomness

Simply stated, entropy can be thought of as the stubborn tendency of absolutely everything in our earthly, physical lives to break down and require maintenance. In an oft-cited passage from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus Himself had something very practical to say on this subject:

Matthew 6:19-21 (ESV)
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Many of us (me included) are nevertheless quick to express frustration when things break down, as if it’s a surprise when they don’t last forever. Lately, though, by God’s grace, I have found myself reflecting on the above passage at increasingly-odd moments: I find a new dent or scratch on my truck, perhaps; a steel tool accidentally left outdoors becomes rusted beyond repair; a much-used appliance stops working as it should. While I have not yet learned to receive entropy with immediate thankfulness, I am grateful that occasionally I am seeing earthly decay in a whole new light.

It goes something like this: How great the Father’s love for us, indeed, that He offers us the merciful (though almost always unwelcome) gift of entropy. Without it, I suspect we would all be sorely tempted to build bright, shiny, impregnable new castles for ourselves and – to the greatest degree possible – wall out the rest of humanity.

Nowhere, though, is the outward revelation of decay (often accompanied by human forgetfulness and neglect) rendered more poignant than in the realm of human achievements.

Since August of 2004, I have been employed by the Missouri School of Journalism, the world’s first and (many will say) best. In 2007 and 2008, a regular feature of my work responsibilities was to assist in the development of a Web-based timeline of the School’s first hundred years, officially celebrated in Sept. of 2008. During the course of this project my colleague and I were given access to (literally) thousands of images stored in University Archives; our job was to pare that number down to a manageable representation of the key events which took place in any given era. Many events deemed noteworthy at the time they occurred did not even register as significant when viewed from the perspective of historic review; in other words, what seemed important then…isn’t now.

Over and over again as this project unfolded, I was struck by the manner in which nearly all people, places and events lose their significance as time goes by.

The photos at right highlight my point. In 1926, before the Second World War, it was considered something of a “big deal” that Japan presented the School with a stone lantern as a token of friendship between our two countries. “The lantern, still standing today near the arch connecting Neff and Walter Williams Halls, consists of five pieces of granite quarried in the province of Mikawa in Japan.(1929 A. Kimura image courtesy University Archives, C:11/15/1.)

Pretty cool, right? And sure enough, the Japanese stone lantern still stands on the MU campus, right next to where I work, but nowadays it’s covered with moss…and very few foreign dignitaries trouble themselves to dress up and stop by Columbia for a stone lantern photo op.

If you’ve seen the movie Dead Poets Society, you will doubtless recall the scene wherein Robin Williams, playing a new instructor at an academy for boys, takes his young students to view the school’s class composites and casually mentions that everyone staring back at them from those old photos is now “worm’s meat.” The oh-so-clever instructor then advises these impressionable young men to “seize the day,” and with that bit of existential wisdom ringing in our ears, millions of annoying “Carpe Diem” bumper stickers and T-shirts were marketed.

So when I was helping to put together the Centennial Timeline, I actually found myself cursing the day that Dead Poets Society made its way into my VCR. Literally, every single work day for a couple of years, I was looking at the accomplishments and achievements of hundreds of souls that were once young, vibrant, and could all be easily classified as top-notch achievers, the “go-getters” in their respective fields. These people had been making things happen, grabbing headlines and receiving honors decades before I was even conceived. Now, of course, they too stared back at me just like the men in the school composites from the film, relics of an era long since gone.

An even more disturbing cinematic example of our collective heart for eternity shows up toward the end of the 2001 film Artificial Intelligence: AI, when the “boy” robot played by Haley Joel Osment is recovered from an ice deposit after thousands of years, only to be flown past what are obviously the uppermost portions of the World Trade Center towers. The image was intended to give those of us alive in this millennium a point of reference for a world completely devoid of human life; “Yeah, sure, humanity’s been wiped out, but look…at least some of our buildings are still standing!” Living as we do now, on the other side of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, the image is far more disturbing than the filmmakers probably intended. Intended to show how humankind would certainly leave its mark on the world even after thousands of years, the iconic image chosen to convey this thought would tragically disappear the very same year this film was released.

We just can’t help it. Even though we know it’s impossible, humankind is relentless in its quest to find, buy or build something (anything!) that will never, ever be subject to wear and tear or the ravages of time. In His great mercy, though, the Lord has lovingly subjected the entirety of Creation to futility (Romans 8:18-25), that we might somehow register the obvious truths of death and decay…and yet contrast all this with the deeply embedded sense of eternity that has been knit into our souls. We buy a new car and get an adrenaline rush…then freak out when it gets its first scratch or ding. God’s mercy. We pluck gray hairs out of our head; they multiply. God’s mercy. We make millions and invest them with our good friend Bernie Madoff, only to watch them vanish into thin air. Again, viewed from eternity, God’s mercy in our lives.

The timeline project ended a year ago, but one obvious after-effect on my own heart is that each and every day I now sincerely thank the Lord whenever my wife and kids sit down with me at the dinner table. Far from my thoughts being morbid as I consider that these days are clearly numbered, I find instead an immense gratitude to a God Who would ordain that I get to enjoy even one meal with my family…let alone thousands.

We worship a risen Lord, a triune God Who has been gracious enough to set eternity in the hearts of mankind (Ecclesiastes 3:11), and yet, mercifully, given us no other place to find that desire ultimately fulfilled than in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Something to consider, perhaps, the next time you’re dealing with the entropy in your own life, whether scraping rust off your outdoor barbecue or replacing a dead battery in your car?

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