The Eternal Now

I take the train to work these days, the most enjoyable commute I have ever known. As a rule, I am a lazy public-transporter: I can get one bus to take me the whole distance to the office, so that’s usually the one I board. Taking the train requires me to first catch a different bus, ride it for a mile, then get off and wait for the train—thus my mornings have lost the lovely mindlessness that my old commute offered. Eventually this new routine will be familiar, but for now I worry daily about previously irrelevant information: How many stops will delay the bus before getting me to the Max station, (If we stop for a bunch of pre-schoolers, each struggling to ascend the bus steps, I get into Titanic mode, aching to grab the tykes by the collars and hoist them in two-at-a-time) and how accurate are the train arrival times? (I have not yet mastered the bus/train schedule overlaps, so an errant calculation involving the coffee shop can leave me with hot coffee in hand watching a train leave without me, and another 15 minutes spent waiting for another.) Considering that I do not leave the house at a consistent hour every day, each morning now features travel time of indeterminate length. My work schedule is shot.

These are transit challenges that, on paper, I would never agree to. But the Max is irresistible to me: First, it feels so urban to take a train to work. I grew up hearing stories of the “T” in Boston, the subways in New York, the El in Chicago—the Max allows me to be an active part of the glorious history of urban American transportation; and second, the ride is extremely smooth, a huge consideration for a man prone to motion sickness—I can actually read, write, and live a mass-transit life like I’ve always seen normal humans do. (Buses, with their irregular stops and inconsistent driver styles, can be a $1.40 dose of ipecac for tasks as mundane as the Jumble.)

Along with the new commuting rituals, I have been enjoying a new visual landscape on the train. New roads, new architecture, new billboards—including one emblazoned on the side of a “laundramat-turned-chapel” church:

“Now is the Day of Salvation”

I have come to the conclusion that this sign is not accurate. Admittedly, the day is still young, but so far, I have not experienced salvation today. Yesterday, either. Ditto on Monday. I say this with some confidence, as it seems to me that salvation would feel like something—not necessarily a cinematic flood of white light as my sins were washed away, but at least a mild euphoria. (Heck, even getting up quickly from the couch can give you a little head rush.) I’m going to be very disappointed if I learn that I was recently granted salvation and mistook it for exhaustion, promptly sleeping through the whole ceremony. (I rule this out, however, because over the last few weeks I have not awakened any morning with a particularly refreshed sensation, and it seems that the very least you’d get from salvation is a good night’s sleep.)(Please don’t think I’m missing the point of salvation—with 11 years of Roman Catholic Sunday school on my resume, I understand the concept.)

Each work day my unsaved soul sips coffee, ponders the destinations of my fellow riders (physical and metaphysical), and contemplates that billboard. And each day, it makes less of an impression, sinking further into the morass of improbable advertising claims such as “delicious fat-free ice cream” or “the season’s funniest new show”. Even on the second day, I already had an inkling of doubt about the claim.

What I don’t like about the ad copy (or scripture, if you prefer) is the word “now”. I’m sure the quotation is taken out of context—when God or whoever uttered the words, it was likely at a particular time, for particular circumstances, directed at a particular person—but removed from that framework, it makes salvation into an action verb, and in doing so, sets unreasonable expectations for fulfillment: I have a hard enough time waiting for lunch, let alone an Epiphany.

I can’t help but wonder, how effective is this scatter-gun message delivery technique? This sign is seen by every eye sitting on the left side of every train, and trains run every 15 minutes—if salvation looks anything like an old-time baptismal ceremony, and now IS the day of salvation, it’s going to be a very crowded river today. Does every one of these people need salvation? Aren’t there some people on this Max line that are already fast-tracked for salvation? And logistically, does mass-forgiveness of this scale require project managers? Wouldn’t there be some sort of administration system, like A through F on Mondays, G-K on Tuesdays, etc.? Let’s face it, Walmart has stampedes when a DVD player is on sale—the queue for salvation is going to be enormous, and worse yet, violently unruly considering it’s filled with folks who see it as the last opportunity to sin, figuring those acts will be wiped clean with the rest of their sins when they reach the front of the line.

And to answer my own hypothetical question, I say “very ineffective”. Daily travelers have become cynical, wise enough to suspect that if today wasn’t “now” yesterday, today probably isn’t “now” today. That means there are two possible demographics for the sign:

  1. the first time train rider who, coincidentally, decided to take the train AND seek a sign from God that salvation was coming, or
  2. the regular traveler who has let the sign blend into the scenery but who, on one particular day, seeks a sign from God that salvation is on the way.

I’m sure the church isn’t concerned with return on investment, but if they were paying money for that billboard, and the folks listed above were the full extent of the convertible market share, that billboard would be a loss. (Though I’m sure the church would counter with, “What’s the value of a single soul?” I don’t have any equation with which to extrapolate that figure, but I bet it’s something corny like “priceless”—if the church is willing to pilfer the “Got Milk?” campaign for “Got God?” I’m sure they’re willing to borrow from a Mastercard advertisement as well. ) A billboard is designed to win customers, to position your product in the hearts of the consumer; this one is likely reassuring to the converted, but for me, it’s just a lettered version of vinyl siding.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea of salvation. But I doubt the second coming is going to be announced by billboard, so I’ll wait for a burning bush or the descent of the archangel. Hopefully the angel will utter those words that every mortal longs to hear:

“It’s Thursday, and we’re up to the R’s. Ready now?”

That’s my idea of now.

©2005 wpreagan