The Faces of Time

July 8, 2001


The Many Faces of Time

Two of us were talking recently about something in human life which has fascinated, frightened and delighted people ever since our curious ancestors created it in a dim and distant past. We were talking about the concept of time , perhaps because both of us had already spent quite a lot of it and were conscious that more of it lay behind us than ahead. We confessed to having wasted more of this precious commodity than was wise, one of us recalling the man who said killing time is only the name for one of the many ways in which time kills us, and both of us remembering the plea of a famous American critic who said, “I would I could stand on A busy corner, hat in hand, and beg people to throw me all their wasted hours.”
I thought afterward that today might be a good time to talk about this elusive concept and how it fits into our religious life. Since this is a pulpit I naturally want to start with whatever the Bible has to say about time, but that turns out to be very little. There is a famous short poem in the book of Ecclesiastes which starts out by saying, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven,” but the author is not really talking so much about time as duration but what we would call “timing” — finding the appropriate moment for doing something. I’ve been tempted to do a sermon about that, too, because it’s such a difficult thing for most of us to master. We’ve all said or done something, only to realize almost instantly that we had picked the wrong moment.
After his son was killed in a tragic accident I saw our choir director, my beloved friend Bob Scott, slam his fist into a hospital wall when a well-meaning friend tried to comfort him with pious cliches about how the son is now in a better place and that Bob would understand it all by and by as part of God’s will. The first response to a broken heart should be an eloquently silent hug or if words seem called for at all, no more of them than a simple “We love you.” Those first devastating moments are not open to reason, not the time for a mini-sermon. The author of Ecclesiastes has such moments in mind when he says, “There is a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.” Or if you want the same advice about timing from a secular source, my favorite is a Jamaican proverb that says, “In the house of a donkey, you do not tell a joke about ears.” But enough about timing. Let’s think about what it is only a part of, which is the construct of time in a broader sense.
Consider first how our concept of time has changed. In the 1701 edition of the King James Version of the Bible, there appeared for the first time Archbishop Ussher’s famous chronology of the earth. It was, he solemnly told us, just over 6000 years old, and as laughably wrong as he was, his dating nonsense died hard. Even as scientists were finding tons of evidence that the earth was much, much older, most Bible readers went on believing the Archbishop for nearly 300 years.
The Bible itself features three creation stories, two in Genesis and one in the Psalms but none of them locate the origin of the universe in a time frame. They had to be content with saying it all happened “in the beginning,” an expression as vague all those children’s stories that begin, “Once upon a time,” because with no way to date different layers of rock there was no way for them to be precise. Living a few thousand years later as heirs of an explosion of technology we know now that our world originated so long ago it’s difficult even to imagine the vast stretches of time involved. If humility is the great blessing the Bible says it is, what better way to be humbled than by considering how late we arrived on this scene.
It’s hard enough to project ourselves ten times further back than the Archbishop thought we had lived, to a time when early human began using tools and drawing crude pictures on cave walls, but that was only yesterday compared to the age of the earth. Here’s an analogy used in some science textbooks to help us grasp the immensity of past time. The oldest fossil evidence of life we can see with the naked eye began on earth about 600 million years ago. Imagine making a book of 200 pages which would equal that amount of time — just from that era known as the Cambrian to this July Sunday morning. Keeping in mind that this one book covers only a small part of the earth’s total history, let’s try to comprehend even that small slice of time. Each page in this book would represent 3 million years. And almost all of recorded human history would be covered by the last two or three letters.
Remember that this is just a single book that covers only the time between the first appearance of minute life on earth and this morning. Now, using that same scale, we would have to go back beyond that book to 7 more books of the same size to get to the origin of the earth itself, and then 10 more books beyond that stack to get to the origin of the universe. And our whole human history, remember, is covered by two or three letters in the last one of all those 18 books. On this scale you could not make a dot small enough to represent the span of your own individual life. So your arthritis is annoying, your job is tedious at times, one of your kids is slow getting his act together — how do those things look in the great scheme of things?
But is almost foolish to ask such a question because we are all pretty well trapped in a compelling present. We may agree theoretically with Stephen Vincent Benet who said once, “Life is not lost by dying. Life is lost minute by minute, day by dragging day, in all the thousand, small, uncaring ways” — but if we dwelt constantly on how each ticking moment is lost to us forever we would go mad. It’s all we can manage to notice how strangely time treats us — stretching out our pain or frustration until an hour becomes an eternity, compressing our happiest day into what seems a fleeting moment.
Even Albert Einstein got into the act, with an analogy so basic you’d hardly think Albert would have bothered. He was trying to explain his most famous scientific theory: “When you sit with a nice girl for two hours, you think it’s only a minute. But when you sit on a hot stove for a minute, you think it’s two hours. That’s relativity.” We don’t need his mastery of physics to know time’s tricks — how it seems to crawl toward us while we wait impatiently for some anticipated joy to come, how we complain that the days will never pass. And then it comes, the thing we wanted, and we are so caught up in it that the clock ticks unheeded until the hour is gone and what we had dreamed of is over and those happiest of moments have slipped forever into the past. All we can do then, and this is uniquely a human gift, is call time back by the power of memory.
Time…..Think of the verbs we use with it. We make time, we mark time, we spend it, use it, waste it, lose it — and sometimes torment ourselves at the thought that once lost it is irretrievable. I think of one of my favorite American writers prowling the library stacks at Harvard, obsessed with the feast they offered but desperate in his fear there would never be enough time. He tells how he would pull a book off the shelf, devour the heart of it while he stood there, then reach for the next one in a growing despair at how many still waited. Time literally obsesses a few of us all our lives, and all of us during parts of our lives, and the idioms we use reflect that: We are ahead of time, we are behind the times, something will do for the time being, we’ll be there in no time at all, we kill time, we keep time, we do something time after time.
One of the ways we deal with time is to be nostalgic, to idolize whatever is distant until it seems far better than it was. We reminisce about the good old days when kids were polite, when streets were safe, when America was boss, when men were men, when hamburger was 50 cents a pound. “Backward, turn backward, O Time, in your flight; make me a child again just for tonight” — that’s the beginning of a sentimental poem which has appealed to millions when they found themselves unhappy with the present and longing for the nostalgic past. It’s such a useless longing that I confess I was pleased by the student at final exam time who used it for parody: “Backward, turn backward, O Time in your flight; and tell me just one thing I studied last night.” Sometimes a touch of irreverence can be the best cure for foolish nostalgia.
Please listen to two different men who are obviously looking back to the “good old days.” The first says, “Our youth today love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority, disrespect for older people. Children nowadays are tyrants. They contradict their parents, gobble their food, and tyrannize their teachers.” The second man says, “Our earth is degenerate in these latter days; bribery and corruption are common, children no longer obey their parents; every man wants to write a book, and the end of the world is evidently approaching.” They sound like a hundred other television preachers and sociologists philosophers describing the awful changes in modern society, right? Not quite. The first man was Socrates, complaining 400 years before Christ, and the second was somebody quoted on an Assyrian tablet that is 4700 years old! Together they provide rather convincing proof that the nostalgic backward look is probably never very useful.
The Christian apostle, Paul, has a healthier piece of advice, both practical and positive. “Make the most of time,” he says, or in another version, “Use the present opportunity to the fullest.” The strange thing is that he said it in prison, with not much of a future left, well aware that the time still left for him might well be no more than the brief flicker of a lighted match. But captured by faith in the extraordinary life of Christ, he will make good use of time even if it seems unlikely to last another week. Attitude is everything, and there is an odd moment in history that illuminates that truth.
In 483 BC the Persian king Xerxes had assembled perhaps the largest army ever brought together — half a million men drawn from all parts of his empire. When he arrived at Abydos, a town overlooking the Dardanelles, he decided to review his army. From an observation platform of white marble he looked out over the land forces, swarming all over the plains and hills, and then out across the water, covered with an enormous fleet which the Phoenicians had collected for him, and he congratulated himself on one of the most impressive feats in history. But as he looked a moment longer his eyes suddenly filled with tears, and an uncle nearby, who had told him long before that he should never undertake this war against the Greeks, asked why his behavior was so inconsistent. “I was struck with pity,” Xerxes said, “at the thought of the brevity of all human life when I realized that out of all these multitudes not a single individual will still be alive a hundred years from now.”
Like the apostle and the king, no person of sense has ever failed to be aware of the brevity of human life but no one who hopes to make the most of life can afford to be paralyzed by failing to make the most of it. So from a Christian perspective, how do we do that? First of all, I would say, but not seeing it as our own gift to squander in any way we like. By remembering that time, and the life without which it has no meaning, are community property and that others matter. Charles Dickens had that in mind in the novel Dombey and Son when he was revealing with his customary verbal abundance how totally selfcentered they were: “Dombey and Son….Those three words conveyed the one idea of Mr. Dombey’s life. The earth was made for Dombey and Son to trade in, and the sun and moon were made to give them light. Rivers and seas were formed to float their ships; rainbows gave them promise of fair weather; winds blew for or against their enterprises; stars and planets circled in their orbits to preserve inviolate a system of which they were the centre.” There can be no greater insult to the priceless time we are given than to use it with no thought of anyone but ourselves.
We use it well by resolving to make something of even the darkest present instead of waiting for better days. I remember seeing an inscription in the chapel at Stanton-Harold near the center of England: “In the year 1653,” it read, “when all things sacred were throughout the nation / Either demolished or profaned / Sir Robert Shirley, Baronet, founded this church / Whose singular praise it is / To have done the best things / In the worst times.” I think nothing ever excited me more in Christian studies than the discovery that when some writers in the New Testament speka of eternal life they have in mind quality rather than quantity of life. Not living for endless billions of years in mansions in the sky, which our minds cannot truly comprehend, but living in such harmony with what is good and enduring that life is in touch with things eternal. Listen to a comment in 1 John 5 with that idea in mind: “I have written like this to you….so that you may be quite sure that you possess eternal life, here and now.”
What may happen beyond the grave, on the far side of human time, is a matter of much speculation and no little disagreement, but as to what may be true of life here and now there is unity among those who are wise. It is possible, they say over and over, to fill one’s life with qualities which time cannot touch. Lovers may grow old, but love lasts. It is the one thing, Paul reminds us, that can endure all things, hope when no one else can see a reason for hope, trust when others have surrendered to cynicism.
A man I otherwise know nothing about was profoundly right. “When we come to the close of this life,” he said, “the majority of us will say, ‘We did not love enough.’” For them, time will have been the enemy. They used it to speak hateful things when that would win an advantage. They made no sacrifices to help a friend. But for the blessed others some of us have had the good fortune to know, who would rather suffer themselves than to inflict unnecessary pain, whose love lifts them up above trivial crusades and petty grievances — for these people, time at the last will have been a friend. On this day, in this sacred place, we should desire above all else to be in that company.
Teach us, Eternal Spirit of Goodness, to welcome the gift of each
new day and to use it well. Amen.