This past Sunday I had the privilege (honestly) of helping my friend Jason Mack out by preaching/speaking to his congregation New Leaf Church in College Park, MD. I was nervous, and 15 minutes late (which was a great sermon illustration, as it turns out), but I really loved worshiping with them. They have a really lovely, chill vibe; surprisingly good music for how small they are; and I was really impressed by how engaged people were during the discussion time. It took me over 3 1/2 hours round trip (God bless Metro), but I really do hope to be able to go back.
Anyway, here is what I said, more or less:
I have an incredibly awkward relationship with time. Sometimes I blame my mother for this. My mother was late to EVERY THING… and not just 5 or 10 minutes late. That, to her, was almost like being early. We’re talking 20-30 minutes, consistently… to work, to church, to pick up my brother and me for school. My father, who otherwise could come across as a relatively care-free person, would buzz around the house while my Mom got ready for some event. He would announce the time loudly at irregular intervals, growing increasingly agitated, until the actual intended time of departure, when he would give up, go outside and sit in the car with the radio on, waiting.
I remember finding this attribute of my mother’s pretty annoying, and priding myself --once I got a car of my own-- on getting to places on time. But when I left home and began to make my way in the world I found myself increasingly reluctant to hurry anywhere. What for? Why should I want to live my life constantly thinking of the next thing I needed to get to, never really *being* anywhere? When I was 20 and had just begun a year of study abroad at Oxford, we took a trip to Greenwich to see The Clock, the one that determines Greenwich Mean Time, the time against which all clocks in the world were supposedly set. I remember being disappointed at the large digital display with red numbers, seconds flicking by rapidly. There was no particular grandeur to this clock (other than it being kinda big-ish), and I pondered a long time on how I’d spent so much of my life chasing this clock… letting the notion of hours and minutes ticking away dictate what I did, when I did it, and how much attention I gave to whomever I was with at the time.
I started to question how my approach to time may have hurt me spiritually. I became interested in the stories of the Desert Fathers of Fourth Century Egypt who went away to caves in the desert and lost track of time as they prayed to and praised God and battled Satan in their solitude. I became enamored of St. Francis, St. Therese of Lisieux and Thomas Merton, who each pulled away from the world, practicing solitude, attempting timelessness. I developed my own practices… long, solitary walks in the woods, 24 hour silent retreats, weekend road trips taken by myself, vacation days taken off from work for the express purpose of doing nothing but praying, reading, eating and sleeping, trying to lose a sense of time as best I could in order to come close to the space of eternity, the space where God was.
But after a time, this became too lonely, and I had a stronger and stronger sense that I was meant to be serving others in the world, so I started teaching ESL and then began working in the field of international education. I worked on a masters degree part time, dated, served actively in church. I wasn’t lonely, but there was now no time for reflection, and my prayer life slowly dwindled away.
In truth, most of us are suffering from a sense that there isn’t enough time and there’s nothing we can do about it. We are admonished by Christian literature to “slow down” and “take time for God”… but if we are in any form of community, or if we need to work in order to eat, most of our time is not our own. It is one thing to go up on the mountain to pray as Christ did, it is another to do so when you have kids, are in grad school, work 40 hours a week, and have a two hour commute every day. Even if your life isn’t that full of obligations, we live within a culture where time is measured in terms of how much information is transmitted per second… where a delay in a page loading on the internet means your losing interest (or your temper) and a business losing money.
Despite my own struggle with this, I still believe in taking time to lose a sense of chronological time, chronos, so that I can enter God-Time: a restfulness of mind where I can hear and sense Him. I just know that it’s a lot harder now. I get up early every morning to write 3 pages in my journal no matter how long it takes, which is an unthinkable luxury for most of my friends with kids, but a far cry from my previous practices. Honestly, though, I'm not satisfied by this, either...
When I go to the scriptures for comfort and guidance on this problem, I find two main themes that work for me: One is the reminder to rest, even within circumstances that seem to make that impossible, and the other is the reminder that I will die. Let’s start with the second theme first, since it’s more disturbing and we should get it out of the way. You may be well familiar with Isaiah 40:6b-8:
"All men are like grass,
and all their glory is like the flowers of the field.
7 The grass withers and the flowers fall,
because the breath of the LORD blows on them.
Surely the people are grass.
8 The grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God stands forever."
It's well-known that we don't handle the idea of death very well in the U.S. Just today, after church, my friends and I saw a hearse. I found myself catching my breath, as we all do in some way when we have this sort of reminder of death, and as the hearse passed, we saw a pair of feet propped in the back window, between the curtains. It took us a minute to realize that this was someone's personal vehicle, and their idea of a joke. We didn't laugh. We didn't know what to say, either.
I remember hearing that St. Dominic urged his followers to spend some time each day contemplating their death and to visit graveyards whenever they could. I suppose that Dominic was sort of an early Goth. I’m not a fan of that sort of practice necessarily, but there is something to be said for remembering on a regular basis that you and I will, without question, die. Death is the great equalizer. It makes me humble. It reminds me of my need for God, who gave me the gift of my life. I need Him to comfort me in dealing with the mysterious horror of death. It reminds me to slow down. It reminds me to take care of my mortal body. It reminds me to value what blessings there are in my life.
The first theme I mentioned, the slightly less disturbing one, was that of rest within trying circumstances. One passage in this vein that I find particularly comforting is Psalm 37:1-11:
1 [a] Do not fret because of evil men
or be envious of those who do wrong;
2 for like the grass they will soon wither,
like green plants they will soon die away.
3 Trust in the LORD and do good;
dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.
4 Delight yourself in the LORD
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
5 Commit your way to the LORD;
trust in him and he will do this:
6 He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn,
the justice of your cause like the noonday sun.
7 Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him;
do not fret when men succeed in their ways,
when they carry out their wicked schemes.
8 Refrain from anger and turn from wrath;
do not fret—it leads only to evil.
9 For evil men will be cut off,
but those who hope in the LORD will inherit the land.
10 A little while, and the wicked will be no more;
though you look for them, they will not be found.
11 But the meek will inherit the land
and enjoy great peace.
This passage is not explicitly about time, but I sense a rhythm --the counting of time-- in the background, like the rocking of a baby… be still, be still. In the now, we are not to fret, we are to trust. We are to dwell in the land, delight in the LORD, trust in the LORD, rest in the LORD. In the future, just around the corner, the wrongdoer withers and fades, cut off and non-existent, while we, the faithful, delight in God’s blessing.
This resting in the now while looking towards the future is a pattern well known to Christians throughout the centuries, those of us who wait –still—for Christ’s coming… who have asked “how long” savage, cruel injustice has to continue in places like Iran, Sudan, Pakistan, and even around the corner from us, behind closed doors. It is well known to those of us who ask “how long” we have to live with the knowledge and experience of the sickness and death that befall everyone… that will befall even our children. The Psalmist says “wait… in just a little while, it will be righted”… and for a moment or two, I believe him. I can wait. I can hold myself still in the silence. I can wait for Him to come to me in prayer. I can be still, and know that He is God.