Reflection on the Theology of Time

Sermon by Jenna Smith, 22 June 2014.

I had no time to hate

I had no time time to hate, because
the grave would hinder me
And life was not so ample I
could finish enmity
Nor had I time to love, but since
some industry must be
the little toil of love, I thought,
was large enough for me.
- Emily Dickinson

This past weekend was international slow day in Montreal. Otherwise known as Jenna's Mecca.

Slow movements are on the rise- the slow food movement from Italy, for instance. I think I do have deep love of all things slow (ok maybe not internet connections...there is perhaps nothing than waiting for YoutTube videos of kittens to load onto your screen) and I think this love may stem from some very bad memories of overwhelmingly busy periods of work that had me breathing into paper bags every Monday morning.

The kicker came a few years ago when I was in New York City at conference that started at 8 am and barely came up for air. We were timed in, with 7 minute breaks, session after session- even lunch had its session, leaving us only enough time to grab our salads and pita wraps and literally run to the next topic room. Finally, around 2 pm, I stepped out to grab some air and clear my mind. The hotel was on 8th avenue, and as I turned the block, I found myself in Broadway district. Now here's an irony, I thought to myself. I needed to visit Time Square to "get away from it all"

I sadly remarked that the organizers of my conference had been so preoccupied with the short time span they had - one day in all- they tried to beat the clock by cramming in as much information as possible, maximizing every hour, every minute of our day. My brain was fried. And truthfully, I am not how much information I took in. In their effort to give me more, they actually gave me less.

It is easy to see why stories like this would lead us to believe that our biggest problem with time is busyness and our only solution is to slow down. People like Carl Honoré are spreading this piece of counter-cultural good news in an effort to say Stop. Enough to the performance and production-driven society. When we look to other cultures' pace of life such as Middle Eastern or African societies, it would be easy to think we've all gone mad. But I would like to propose that in a theology of time, we need to delve a bit further - rather than a "problem (busyness) and solution (slowing down) approach" we also need to think about what time actually is and of our general behaviour towards it.

The first thing that can be said of our relationship towards time is this: we are stuck in an ebb and flow of either wanting to control time or of feeling controlled by it. Think of the following expressions:

"Tic tock, tic tock"

"Where did the time go?"

"Time is slipping away..."

All of these sayings hint at a certain despair at how the hours are getting the better of us, how one's deadlines will not be met. We despair that time is getting the better of us.

In the same light, we speak in a certain nostalgia or reminiscence when saying "those were the days" or "that was the time of my life" as if the best were behind us. Because the days naturally go on, I cannot have the best any more.

I both cases, the general feeling is that I cannot hold time; rather I am commanded by it. I wish I had more, but I don't.

On the opposite spector we live in a world where we are constantly trying to battle off that phenomenon and control time, dominate it, stretch it or condense it. We try to annihilate waiting times, speed-produce goods, put chemicals on our plants to make them grow faster. We make quicker planes, faster trains.

I would like to propose that the biggest challenge before us is to do away with both feelings of wanting to control time or of feeling controlled by it, and approach time in an altogether different way.

If I explain what time is according to biblical text, the best text I could use would be Genesis 1 and 2 in which the very beginnings of creation are explained within the limits of sunrise, sunset.

The earth, its plants, its fruit. Day.

The sea, the creatures of the sea. Day.

The heavens, its winged species. Day.

What is being described to us is a world that contains a natural framework, natural limit and this limit is called one Day- sunrise, sunset.

Note that I say world, and not universe. I am not an astrophysicist but as the inspired book "The origins of the universe for dummies" has taught me, time is incredibly relative- it expands the further out you go. One hour here on earth is an altogether different measure if we are light years away. This is a concept I cannot entirely wrap my head around, but I find it beautiful and it puts things in perspective here on planet earth. Time is not as linear or as static as we were led to believe.

But back to Genesis, and if you were worried I would turn this into a 7-day creation rant, rest assured. No, Genesis is a poem about many things, and one of those things is this natural barrier, natural limit that we must work within.

I would suggest that the day- sunrise, sunset- is actually one of our fellow creatures here on earth. What if we approached time as a co-creature? A co-inhabitant of this earth?

Now, one cannot say it is an entirely the same as, say, the creature "Elephant" because as a co-creature, time also functions as a frame. But time is an element of our world. A co-inhabitant. And just as ecologists and eco-philosophers have been pointing out in past years, if you abuse of this earth and its creatures- if you go too far with pollution, waste, destruction, the earth has her way of rebelling. Tolkien portrays this image beautifully in "The Two Towers" when the ents finally rage battle on Saruman because the evil wizard had destroyed too many forested lands. The trees groan, shriek and shake with fury.

Time, I would argue, is also one of those creatures that if we manipulate or abuse, it will rebel against us. Some would say this is what causes burnout, fatigue or nervous breakdowns.

Time instead is to be partnered with. To be worked within, to be used as a vessel towards creativity, to be celebrated at the change of seasons, to be appreciated when night comes and we can see the stars, to be respected when it is time to rest.

There is a lovely verse in Genesis 2 when the creator God blesses a period of time (called the 7th day) and rests. One would assume that God does not need to rest, but this one does. She agrees to submit to the limits of Her own creation.

When I was walking the Camino di Santiago, I found time to be a great instructor. When landscapes were beautiful, I mourned the fact that the day was going by too quickly.  I worried that I may never see these sights again. When my walking was over early on in the day and my destination was some lonely forgotten village with nothing to do, I was bored and found that time went by too slowly.

I needed to learn that I should rejoice in the beauty, even when it was fleeting, and appreciate the slow, even when it was long. This is what time was teaching me. And what a teacher she was.

I do believe Emily Dickison was demonstrating this teaching as well, when she wrote the poem above. She was recognizing the limits of time, but also its gift. Life was too short to hate, she noted. But what a gift this is! That we have no time to hate. All Dickinson figured she could do was dedicate what precious time she had to the "little toil of love". The daily, mundane task of loving one's neighbour.

But finally, isn't that the greatest task of all.

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