In working on a sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, I started ruminating more on the connection between the nature of time and the nature of the Gospel: how they might fit together, and how we might apply this to our lives. Indeed, the lectionary has teed up such a connection with Paul’s call to “redeem the time” in Ephesians 5:15-20 (or “make the most of the time”) and Jesus’s strong language about eating his Body and Blood (in John 6:53-59). But what does a Jewish carpenter and an apostle have to teach us about time management in our fast-paced, post-industrialized, post-modern context? A lot, in fact, and I wanted to find out, post-haste.
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We all know time can be problematic, right? When we are children we can’t wait to have control of our own time. When we reach adulthood, we’re often enslaved to the times in many ways, to fashion or to work schedules that others create for us. When we have families we feel we have no time whatsoever. Where does it go — it is here and gone? One moment we have a child, the next moment our child has leg hair. One moment we’re doing CrossFit, the next moment we’re popping Geritol & playing bingo. And we spend so much of our lives trying to arrive at a place where we can enjoy our time, only to realize that we have little time left. As Dorothy Bass reminds us, “For so many people today time — the experience of moving through actual days, weeks, years — is not shaped by hope but rather encountered as burden, blur, or bane.”
It is not surprising, therefore, that entire industries have popped up around managing time in light of pressing demands. A few years ago Forbes Magazine ran an article listing the following Top Ten Challenges in Time Management. They are:
Challenge 10: I feel overwhelmed.
Challenge 9: I’m always in reactive mode.
Challenge 8: I don’t finish what I start.
Challenge 7: I don’t stop doing things that are no longer worth doing.
Challenge 6: I procrastinate.
Challenge 5: I don’t have enough energy to do the things I want.
Challenge 4: I’m easily distracted by things that are not important.
Challenge 3: I don’t feel satisfied when I do finish something important.
Challenge 2: I don’t know how to say no.
Challenge 1: I don’t know what I want.
If you’ve been tripped up by any of these obstacles, then Paul’s call to “redeem the time” is a most appropriate call, as it forces upon the would-be-disciple a question: “What time is it?” Or, rather, “Whose time is it?” Paul does this because time wrongly spent can become the source of false worship. Jesus calls his followers to love God with all of their heart, mind, body and soul, and one of the greatest ways of knowing what you truly love is by figuring out where you spend the bulk of your time. Is it on Facebook? Is it in the mall? Is it in looking at shoes online? Is it in anxiously pouring over your stock portfolio? Is it with a martini glass?
Even time itself can become the object of our worship. In ruminating on Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Bass makes this very connection:
Gulliver is in Lilliput, and the tiny citizens are puzzled. What is the nature of the big engine that hangs from a silver chain at Gulliver’s waist and makes incessant noise? “We conjecture,” they report, “it is either some unknown Animal, or the God that he worships …. But we are most inclined to the latter Opinion, because he assured us that he seldom did any Thing without consulting it … and said it pointed out the Time for every Action of his life.”
This link between idolatry and time is, in part, why Paul just a few verses before his call to “redeem the time,” addresses sexual immorality, covetousness, vulgar talk, and the works of darkness (cf. vv. 3-11). He is not just trying to enlist the Church into the morality brigade, to become self-righteous, looking down on “those poor sinners over there.” No, Paul is trying to help the Ephesians prevent their love and desires from being pointed towards something that supplants love for God, and all of these issues he mentions start when time (along with energy and thoughts) are given over to something that brings death and darkness, instead of life and light.
This is, again, why the Church must constantly ask: “What time is it? And whose time is it?”
Are we killing time, or are we redeeming it?
This past week I listened to a podcast called RadioLab, which I highly recommend. On it the hosts talked about the genesis of synchronized time, using the following example of Sandusky, Ohio in 1850. If you lived there in 1850, and you asked the question, “What time is it?” you would receive multiple answers, as many people had many clocks with different times, set primarily by looking at when the sun was at high noon (yet people’s perspectives differed). This was not really a problem in 1850, but then the railroad came the town. The hosts of the show mentioned that if you wanted to take the 3:03 to Cleveland, how did you know when to go to the station? By the bank’s clock, you’d arrive there ahead of time, the hotel clock would get you there just in the nick of time, and tavern time would cause you to miss it entirely!
So, for the sake of business, the railroad industry created railroad time. Because of their size and clout many people followed suit, but some people continued to follow their own time(s), kept by their own clock(s), which were almost always different. In fact, the hosts declaimed that “time wars” developed because time came to represent the identity of the people, something people do not enthusiastically offer over to encroaching outsiders.
However, the bank learned that if they were going to get their delivery of cash, they better be on time to pick it up. The hotel learned that they had to give their customers buggy rides to and from the station — on time. And the tavern learned if they were going to get their beer, they had to be to the train station on time. They could have disorder and chaos, or they could conform their time to the train industry’s time, which was part of a larger complex of deliveries and industry nationwide.
Similarly, our call as disciples is to have our time standardized, to have it drawn up into God’s time. We can resist conforming our time to God’s time, which causes disorder and the fracturing of unity and relationships, or we can exclaim, “Whose time is this? It is God’s time … not mine.” In doing so, we give the gift of our time back to the giver, and we allow it to become sacrificed on his altar, where it is resurrected into an economy of grace, of life, of light, of eternity, where time never ends, where time does not ultimately lead to the station of death.
But how do we do this? Manifold practices exist, but I offer the following as four practices to redeem the time:
1. Practice unstructured time
Last year Wesley Hill blogged at First Things on the relationship between hospitality and unstructured time. He quoted the following from Meredith Schultz:
The accelerated pace of modern life means time is one of the most significant obstacles to practicing hospitality. “‘Being busy’ has become a status symbol,” says Henri Nouwen, “and most people keep encouraging each other to keep their body and mind in constant motion.” If we fill every spare moment of our lives, we will not be free to welcome unexpected guests or have the energy to care for them. Leaving unstructured time in our schedules is a countercultural act, which faithfully anticipates divine encounters. A late-night conversation. Another plate at dinner. Three strangers by the Oaks of Mamre.
Unstructured time releases us from the shackles of slavery that pull us towards one more shopping venture, one more event, one more episode, one more sales call, one more task to complete. Thereby, it opens up our hearts to hear, to listen, to be present to our loved ones without any agenda other than being present with them, or with God.
2. Listen to music or engage in worship
At one point of the same RadioLab episode I already mentioned, the hosts were reflecting on the concept of “time,” and how it interacts with music, which led them to introduce a fascinating movement among fans of classical music. Such fans might take Beethoven’s 9th symphony, for instance, and digitally stretch it from its original length (around sixty minutes), so that it is slowed down to last an entire day. This digital stretching means that a few measure of music, that would normally pass in an instant, may last a few minutes, and a movement might last hours! If you listened through the entire 24-hour period, secrets would be unlocked and discoveries encountered that otherwise would go unnoticed. These radio hosts mentioned that the change in the tempto created an entirely new experiential dimension to the symphony.
I want to submit that this is possible because good music makes us aware of where we are in time. It helps us to answer the question, “What time is it?” This is a slightly philosophical point, but it is also a very simple point, one that even a child can understand. The senior warden at the church where I serve recently posted on Facebook the following quote from his four-year old daughter, who upon listening to Pachelbel’s Canon in D said, “I experience where I am in life when I listen to this song, Daddy.” Then she kissed a picture of Pachelbel from the Internet.
Out of the mouth of babes…
So when you arrive home after a long day, instead of being sucked into a screen, let yourself be swallowed up in music, in a symphony, or in a concerto, in some good jazz, or in a rock album (not just Netflix and Facebook, again). Or try this: Upon waking up in the morning, put on some hymns from the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge while you are getting ready and see what happens. Unless you detest this kind of music, you normally have to try not to be moved in the moments you hear their singing. And I submit that such music redeems the time in drawing one close to God’s hear. In being drawn into worship, one is being drawn into love, into God. In fact, Paul himself makes this same connection between redeeming the time (in v. 16) with singing hymns & songs when he writes,
Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts.
It is for this reason, when I was in a season of spiritual dryness, a good and faithful bishop encouraged me to find music that nourished me, and to listen to it as a devotional practice. And you know what … it worked! (It’s almost as if Paul knew what he was talking about, in turning people from drunkenness to singing, from loving a finite good in an abusive way, to loving the infinite source of all goods.)
3. Serve others
Time becomes less of an idol over us when we give it away in service to others. So redeem the time; mentor a student, volunteer at a soup kitchen, serve on your altar guild. Or, serve outside the church: on a PTA, a city commission, in a nursing home, or at an elementary school. Multiple studies show that a strong relationship exists between serving others and a healthy life. For instance, those who volunteer at least two hours a week have improved physical and mental health, greater functional ability, lower rates of despair and depression, and lower death rates. Or we might simply summarize such findings by saying, such people have better time; they have more time; they have healthier time.
4. Adore Christ (in the Eucharist)
Ultimately the way we redeem our time does not start with us, it starts with Christ. This is a critical point: We can find ourselves in a situation where we just will ourselves to practice unstructured time, to have more invigorated time through music, to serve others with our time, without actually redeeming the time at all, thereby falling back into the same old broken habits. Redeeming the time starts by having time with the redeemer. Jesus himself speaks to this principle, tethering it intimately to the eucharistic encounter (Jn. 6:56-58b): “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.”
So are you looking for more time, for redeemed time? Jesus says: “He who eats this bread will live forever.”
In other words, redeeming the time starts by having time with the Redeemer.
Will this subtract from the time we have for other activities? Absolutely. As Alexander Schmemann reminds us, the call to “Lift up your hearts” at the beginning of the Great Thanksgiving is paradigmatic — we are called to lift up all of our lives as a sacrifice to God, and this includes our time. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”
In other words, death comes before resurrection; time united to the Cross is bound to the God who is making all things new. This is the paradox of saving time, of redeeming the time; we must pour it out as a sacrifice. Then and only then can we move beyond our time to the abode of eternity where we join angels and archangels in properly “giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:20).
Behold the mystery: time must enter the tomb of the infinite before it is resurrected into the experience of the finite. Kill your time in Christ, and he’ll redeem it. Schmemann builds on this point:
[Jesus] is the Eucharist of the World. In and through this Eucharist the whole creation becomes what it always was to be and yet failed to be … and this we confess and proclaim when, speaking of the Kingdom which is to come, we affirm that God has already endowed us with it. This future has been given to us in the past that it may constitute the very present, the life itself, now, of the Church (For The Life of the World, pp. 38-9).
The featured image is “Brokenness” (2005) by Flickr user Col_Adamson. It is licensed under Creative Commons.