This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but with a whimper.
I can’t get this line (it’s the last one of T.S. Eliot’s poem The Hollow Men) out of my head. After years dormant in the back of my mind from some high school English class, it popped into my head last week, and it feels so appropriate. “This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but with a whimper.” Don’t worry, I’m not talking about the world actually ending. I’m just talking about this school year.
To me, each school year has a natural flow. The anything-is-possible and “I’m-going-to-wake-up-at-6am-every-day-to-have-a quiet-time-and-work-out” optimism of August is followed by the hopeful, albeit more down to earth, rhythm of September. Then we move on to getting the hang of classes, meeting new friends, cheering on the Buckeyes, catching glimpses of what God might do over the course of the year. There’s the joy and clarity of Fall Getaway. Then the horror of finals. After which comes the reprieve of winter break. Then the bleak monotony of trudging to small group through Ohio’s endless winter, the false hope of spring followed by more winter in March. And then finally, like the bridge of a good worship song, the year rises to a triumphant pitch with spring retreat, last RealLife’s and small groups and FLT’s, and late nights with friends gratefully reflecting on what God has done. April is the climactic bang that marks the end of a long, hard, beautiful, worthwhile school year.
This year, though, it feels like we got everything but the bang at the end. We were just coming out of winter’s haze, steeling our nerves for one last bout of wintery gloom, and then poof...everything was different. Instead of the climactic, celebratory April we anticipated, we were thrust into a scramble to adjust to a new normal of Zoom calls, sweatpants every day (though to be fair, some of us were doing that before being stuck at home), and waaaayyy too much Tiger King. Sure, we kept our rhythms. We haven’t given up on community, on small group, on worship, or on spending time with God, but it hasn’t been anything like what we expected. We expected the school year to end with the bang, but instead, like the slow, unpleasant squeal of air being let out of a balloon, it has ended with a whimper.
This year reminds me a little bit of the Apostle Paul’s story in the book of Acts. It starts with a shocking conversion on the road to Damascus, it slows down for years of growth and preparation, then it picks back up with the action. Preaching, riots, friendship, heartbreak, imprisonment, hopes and dreams. As the story in Acts draws near to its conclusion, Paul is making his way to Rome, the most powerful city in the world. We anticipate the bang at the end, Paul is going to stand before Caesar, the most powerful king in the world, and proclaim that Jesus is the world’s true king. It’s the satisfying end we expect after the buildup of the epic story, but it’s not the end we get. Instead, when Paul arrives in Rome we see him spend two more years under house arrest talking with small groups of Jews about Jesus (Acts 28:30-31). We never see the showdown with Caesar. Paul’s story, as told in Acts, ends with a whimper.
It had to be intentional, and it makes you wonder: “What did Luke (the author of Acts) want us to take away from this ending?”
I wonder if one take away (there are definitely several) Luke wants us to get from this ending is the realization that this story is less about Paul and his climactic moment, and more about the journey. In other words, we don’t get to see the climactic ending we expect, because Luke wants us to walk away remembering the long middle. When we think about the second half of Acts (the part that describes Paul’s journeys), we think about the work that God did in and through Paul, and I think that’s exactly what Luke wanted. Acts isn’t about Paul. It’s about God’s work that Paul gets to benefit from and be involved in. Appropriately, then, the story whimpers off as we see Paul continuing to participate in God’s work- the same work that you and I get to participate in today.
I wonder if this school year’s ending can serve as an opportunity for us to look back on this school year like we look back on Paul’s life- remembering the journey, not the ending. Let’s take this whimpering end, the end we didn’t expect, as an invitation for each of us to reflect on our own journey. Here are some questions that have helped me: What has God done in your life this year? What has he taught you? How have you seen God be faithful through good times? How have you seen him be faithful through hard times? How has this journey been worthwhile even though you didn’t get the satisfying end you hoped for?
To be honest, even after reflecting on the ways I’ve seen God be faithful, I’m still really sad that this year didn’t end with a bang. I’m sad for those of us, like me, who had a hard year and don’t get to see the fruit of the challenges quite so clearly. I’m sad for those who had a great year and don’t get to spend the last couple months savoring that goodness. I’m especially sad for you, Seniors. I can’t imagine the disorientation of not having known so many of your “lasts” were indeed the last. The last time you walked across campus to a college class. The last time attended RealLife at the Newport. The last time you sat in a tiny dorm room for a small group. The last retreat. On and on it goes. I’m so sorry.
In the midst my sadness, though, I think God is using this whimper of an ending to teach me to see and appreciate the journey that came before. I hope he will use it in your life too.