A Square Inch of Heaven
When oil was discovered on the North Slope of Alaska, I remembered that I owned property somewhere up there, one square inch of it. The deal was struck when I was seven or eight years old. I had persuaded my mother to buy a box of Quaker Oats cereal, knowing there was a deed inside for one square inch of frozen tundra. As I later discovered, this promotional scheme is now regarded as one of the most successful in the annals of kid marketing. The Quaker Oats Company, sponsor of a Saturday morning TV show back in the 1950s called Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, bought up 19 acres of land in Yukon Territory and subdivided it into 21 million square-inch parcels. Deeds were printed up in the name of the Klondike Big Inch Land Co. and stuffed into boxes of Puffed Wheat and Puffed Rice, which flew off the shelves. I'm not exactly sure now what the appeal was, except perhaps that the Yukon was vast and remote and, of course, Sergeant Preston hung out there.
I was reminded of my Yukon land holding again not long ago when an outfit called the International Star Registry launched a marketing scheme involving real estate that is even vaster and more remote. For just $54, plus shipping and handling, you can name your own star and receive a framed parchment certificate with the name and telescopic coordinates. As it turns out, the name you pay for has no official standing with the International Astronomical Union, which has sole authority to name stars. However, your money buys you a copyrighted entry in a book entitled Your Place in the Cosmos, so future generations can look up the coordinates and locate your square inch of heaven.
Naming a star after yourself or a loved one is probably harmless enough but also absurdly presumptuous, considering that the object we name is so far beyond our reach and dwarfs anything on a human scale. By rights, the cosmos should be naming us, and perhaps it does. In the biblical creation story, the first man is given authority to name his fellow creatures to show he has dominion over them. Yet the man does not name himself or the God who created him. To name something is to make it our own, much as we might name a child or a pet. But we are God's possession, not the other way around. God has always been coy about giving out his name. The name he reveals to Moses at Mt. Sinai is less a name than an affirmation: I AM.
In God's realm, there are no names, nor can anything be possessed. To gain entry we must abandon hope of all other gain. "So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple," Jesus said. Renunciation is usually equated with vows of poverty, but Jesus had something far more radical in mind. It is impoverishment beyond the imagination of any pauper, total renunciation of the world and everything in it, including ourselves. But if we imagine anything is lost in the bargain, we are in for a surprise. No sooner do we stop trying to stake a claim to our square inch of heaven than we find our true place in the cosmos. We discover it is all ours and always has been.