One Saturday night more than twenty years ago, some friends and I were having dinner at a nice restaurant. It was a beautiful spring evening, but we were having trouble relaxing because we were thinking about tomorrow. After putting in a quick appearance at church, each of us planned to spend most of the day grading papers that we had to return to our students on Monday. “I can’t believe I have thirty essays to read,” one of us whined. “Thirty?” harrumphed another; “I’ve got fifty!” Each of us silently computed the number of pages stacked on our desks and sighed loudly. I’ve never been sure whether we were complaining or boasting about how busy, how indispensable, how burdened we were.
But there was one thing I did know with a sudden burst of awareness: “Remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy” was the farthest thing from our minds. Was it true that we were deliberately planning to violate one of the commandments? I could not imagine this group sitting around saying, “I’m planning to take God’s name in vain,” or “I’m planning to commit adultery,” or “I think I’ll steal something.” Yes, we might occasionally break one of the other commandments (“You shall not covet” can be especially challenging for me), but if we did, we would hardly boast about the transgression. Our approach to the Sabbath commandment was different. We had become so captivated by our work, so impressed by its demands and our own indispensability that the Sabbath had simply vanished from our consciousness.
Why is it so hard to relax our grip on our busyness — or to allow it to relax its grip on us? Many reasons exist. For one, many of us simply have too much to do. Complex social and economic changes have put the squeeze on American workers at every level of status and pay, so that Americans now get less time off than workers in any other developed country. Beyond the realm of paid employment, our to-do lists have also grown as we chauffeur children to multiple activities and try to keep up with obligations within our households, congregations, and communities. Since so much is available virtually at any hour of the day or night — shopping, communication (with each other and from media sources), and so forth — finding time that is free in a deep and satisfying sense is becoming quite a challenge.
Some would say that, more than anything, we need to learn to manage our time better. I have nothing against this suggestion and have benefited from keeping a datebook, clarifying priorities, and planning ahead. Important as these aids are, however, they are finally inadequate, because management techniques cannot address the concerns at the heart of our difficulties with time.
When we despair over our failure to get everything done, the passage of time becomes a source of guilt and judgment. We forget how to luxuriate in time that is not filled with tasks.
Our attitudes toward time raise issues of identity and conscience that provide remarkable windows onto our spirituality. When we despair over our failure to get everything done, the passage of time becomes a source of guilt and judgment. We forget how to luxuriate in time that is not filled with tasks. We fume with anger against those who keep us waiting or “fritter away” their own time. We delude ourselves into believing that if we could just get ahead of the crush and tie up all those loose ends, we would prove our worth and establish ourselves in safety. And in the process, we embrace a false theology: We come to believe that our worth depends on our own accomplishments.
The truth is that we are never going to get everything done. We are mortals who are given a limited number of hours each day across a span of days whose number we do not know. As we sing in Isaac Watts’s great hymn, “time like an ever-rolling stream soon bears us all away.” We will never have enough time to satisfy the needs of our neighbors or even to complete all the tasks on our personal to-do lists. We are foolish when we stake our sense of worth on this. This is a form of pressure we will never be able to bear.
Since that Saturday night, I have been exploring scriptural and theological wisdom about what it means to live faithfully in the midst of time’s ever-rolling stream. Over the centuries, I have discovered, Christian people have inherited and invented practices that give a certain qualitative shape to the rhythms of a human life, not extending the time we are given nor strengthening our control over it, but reminding us, again and again, through words and actions, that time is a gift of God. In the midst of these practices, we also find companions with whom to celebrate this gift, companions with whom to conspire in sharing it and the other gifts of God for the good of all.
The first is the practice of receiving each day as the day that God has made. Days come one at a time, and they require of us the vulnerability of sleep. Days are real — unlike hours and weeks, they are established not by convention but by nature. They, and their duration, are given. Moreover, as anyone who has listened closely to Genesis 1 will know, biblical days do not begin when the alarm clock blares and end as we doze off, exhausted, with David Letterman. They begin and end at dusk. The first half of the day, in other words, passes in darkness. God is out growing the crops even before the farmer is up, and knitting together the wound before the clinic opens; human work joins in on a process that is already taking place without us, thank you very much. “When I quit my day’s work, nothing essential stops,” Eugene Peterson says. “I go to sleep to get out of the way for awhile. I get into the rhythm of salvation . . . . Human effort is honored and respected not as a thing in itself but by its integration into the rhythms of grace and blessing.” Perhaps in the emerging time system of the global marketplace dusk will be difficult to discern. But the larger idea is an important one: a day of twenty-four hours that includes some human sleep and that conceives of our waking up as a joining in rather than a getting started. Gift comes each day, and not just task. We acknowledge this gift in prayer — rising, at bedtime, and at meals.
A second practice is keeping sabbath. The Sabbath arose within and continues to be a definitive and vital part of Jewish life, from which we Christians have much to learn. In somewhat different form, this practice also offers to Christians a set of activities, done together week after week, century after century, that involves us in the life of God. Complex historical developments have led most churches during the past sixteen centuries to absorb the keeping of the sabbath into the celebration of the Lord’s Day; in spite of some lingering questions, I favor continuing in this tradition. Note the beliefs that are embedded and embodied in this practice:
- Resting and worshiping on one day in seven affirms that God, not we, created the world. Keeping sabbath, we coexist in gratitude for and with one another and the natural world as gifts of God. Scripture clearly links sabbath to rest for the land as well. This practice fosters care for all of creation.
- Resting and worshiping on one day in seven, we affirm that God led the people of Israel out of bondage, and we express with our bodies and lives that God does not intend unremitting labor for any one — not ourselves, or others on whose labor we rely, or animals.
- Worshiping now not on the seventh but on the first, or eighth, day of the week enables us to celebrate together, as Christians have done every first day since Easter itself, God’s victory over death and the breaking into history of the new creation.
- A sabbath lasts all day, not just for an hour or two of corporate worship. In the practice of keeping sabbath, concrete activities (or rather non-activities) guide us into a faithful way of life. We practice stepping off the treadmill of work and spend. We coexist, in gratitude, with nature and other people within the plenty of God’s creation. We live, now, on the first and the eighth day, the day that both re-members creation and anticipates the future.
- Contrary to some past distortions, sabbath keeping does not consist of following an unbending set of rules, though it does require rigorous thought and a willingness to experiment. Within Judaism, for example, there have been centuries of debate about precisely what it means not to work. We need to have a similar (but different) realistic debate among Christians who wish to explore this practice today. For example, Jurgen Moltmann, noting the ecological significance of sabbath at the end of his book God in Creation, suggests that we resolve not to drive our cars on that day! It’s in the conversations that follow suggestions like this that the rubber hits the road, as it were. For me, Moltmann’s proposal seems too hard; but I have found relinquishing the use of money and absenting myself as much as possible from the consumer economy on Sunday to be tremendously relevant and liberating.
A third practice is the Christian year as we experience it within the liturgical seasons. The patterns of the year connect the now — the vulnerable present in which we mortals live — to the foundational stories of our faith. Each year feast follows fast. I prepare, throughout Advent, for Christ’s birth: I reiterate the expectancy of Elizabeth and Zechariah, of Mary and Joseph, and of John the Baptist and those who walked the wilderness before him. When we finally sing “The First Nowell,” it is the first Christmas again. Time rolls on, and Epiphany comes; Jesus grows up, is baptized, and soon goes into the wilderness to meet the Tempter. Together with my faith community, I go too, reflect upon the temptations I face, and prepare to die. We put away the word “Alleluia” for the forty days of Lent. When the week of passion comes, we retell and reenact, liturgically, a hope-filled, then devastating, week in a small city of the Roman Empire long ago. But then Easter comes, startling us yet again, and we shout “Christ is Risen, Alleluia!” Our words are still in the present tense, and this Easter and the first one are each of them, and both together, the first day of a new creation. A few weeks later, the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost. Keeping a year in the life of Christian faith, my individual life is woven into an eternal life — bridging the centuries in a mysterious way, and (even more mysteriously and wondrously) also weaving my mortal existence into the immortal life of God. When death has come near, the week of passion speaks with added power; when I am overstuffed by life in North America, the season of fasting refreshes me.
All of these time-shaping practices bear grace and wisdom for people who desperately need sources of resistance to the inhumane system of time that is gaining an ever tighter hold on everyday life.
All of these time-shaping practices bear grace and wisdom for people who desperately need sources of resistance to the inhumane system of time that is gaining an ever tighter hold on everyday life. If they are to be viable, these practices must be freshly appropriated and adapted to a wide range of specific contexts. Living them will not be easy, especially at first: these practices are countercultural. But happily the process does not need to begin from scratch, for these practices are already present in at least rudimentary form in every Christian congregation today. What is needed is awareness, and intentionality, and creativity, and gratitude, as those who already inhabit them a little grow stronger in perceiving and embodying the grace they hold.
As I’ve lived my way into these ways of understanding time, I’ve come to see that sabbath and other intentional practices offer far more than an opportunity for rest and worship, as important as those are. When we allow these practices to shape our lives, we resist the 24/7/365 rhythms of the global marketplace. Even more important, we become more fully aware of who and Whose we really are. This does not necessarily give us more time. However, it does form us into people who see the world differently because some of the time in which we dwell talks the truth of God. Within this kind of time, we embrace the freedom with which Christ has set us free. We expand our capacity to understand ourselves and the world as belonging to the merciful and eternal One who graciously meets us within time itself.