Sunday, July 02, 2006

What Time is It?

The Witness Magazine
by Thomas B. Woodward
Monday, October 31, 2005

The prophet Amos, in one of his most powerful moments, points to the self-satisfied who look forward to the Day of the Lord as a time of congratulations and glory, and shouts, "Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord! Why would you have the day of the Lord? It is darkness, and not light ..." This is not a time for glory, but for repentance.

In the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, half of the young women thought they had plenty of time before they would be needed -- and for quite different reasons than the self-satisfied of Amos time, were not prepared for the decisive time when it came. They thought it time for checking out their e-mails or the sale over at Talbotts, but when it came time for them to illuminate the wedding hall with their lamps, they found that they had run out of time.

Amos and Matthew both knew how important it is to know what time it is. Both were aware, too, of the religious meaning of time. In Scriptures there are two notions of time. One has to do with chronos, chronology, calendar and wristwatch time. The other is kairos, decisive time. Thus, if you are a trapeze artist and you have just completed your triple spin in mid-air, you are not concerned whether it is 8:12 or 8:15 p.m. -- you just know that it is time to be caught! Kairos, not chronos. The question about time takes on a different dimension.

I have heard more than one psychiatrist say that the only therapeutic question worth asking is "How are you going to spend your time?" Are you going to spend your time playing the victim, wallowing in guilt, blaming your mother, isolating yourself in a life of bullying and resentment -- or in living a life of intimacy with yourself and others? Eric Berne, in his popular book Games People Play, distinguishes between moments of intimacy and the many ways we "pass time," whether through intricate emotional games of blaming or avoiding responsibility, playing "How about those Packers?" or giving our lives over to the deadening effects of everyday life.

If the therapeutic question is, "How are you going to spend your time?" the religious question is "What time is it?" While on one level we live in a chronological world, the deeper reality is always about kairos. Paul Tillich called it the dimension of depth. Episcopalians usually prefer to talk about our sacramental understanding of the world, or the universe. For those who know to look for it and to entrust their lives to it, life, itself, is an outward and visible experience of an inward and spiritual grace and reality. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, "Earth's crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes. The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries."

What time is it? It is time to remember just who we are and, as he old saw goes, "whose we are," even or especially when our worlds are crumbling. As Julia notes in T. S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party, "Now that they have been stripped naked to their souls, they have the opportunity, perhaps for the first time, to choose proper costumes, or huddle quickly into new disguises." And what is true for us as individuals is true for us as churches and cities and nations.

The two questions, the therapeutic and the religious, come together in the simple story of the fellow who was walking by a construction site. He asked one worker what he was doing and the fellow replied, "I'm laying bricks." He then asked the same question of another worker and was told, "I'm making a buck." After a few moments he asked the same question of a third worker. The third responded "I'm building a cathedral."

That is a central meaning of our lives. We are building a cathedral -- whether that cathedral is a relationship, a community, or the transformation of our lives. We know from Amos as we know from Jesus that it is not "our" cathedral, except as it is marked with justice, dignity, inclusiveness and love.

It is always time for cathedral building -- both internally and externally -- and to think otherwise is to miss what is most important about our world. Though so much of our time we act as though the meaning of our lives were defined by what we experience on the surface of life, but in light of what we know in Christ, such an attitude is crazy, the emotional equivalent of sitting around plucking blackberries while surrounded by bushes afire with God.

Rabbi Abraham Heschel used to retell an old Hassidic tale as a parable of our calling -- and it is probably never more appropriately retold than now. It goes: Once upon a time there was a small kingdom whose only industry was its agriculture. Everyone was happy and everyone had plenty to eat -- until one year, when it was discovered to everyone's horror, that something terrible had gone wrong with that year's crops. Something in the crops made whoever ate them insane. The kingdom was soon in an uproar. So the monarch hurriedly gathered all her wise men and wise women together and met with them around the clock for several days. Then she called the kingdom together to announce her decision. "Twelve people will be set aside," she said. "The rest of us will eat the crazy-making crop. But all our food in storage will be set aside for the twelve. They will eat the old crop. The twelve will serve the very important function of reminding the rest of us that we are, indeed, crazy."

What a magnificant image of our calling! We are fools: fools for Christ, stumbling along, in trouble with the authorities who trouble us all, never quite understanding the wisdom of the age, always a little out of step. Whether by a name like Mother Theresa or Francis of Assisi, like Desmond Tutu or Rosa Parks, we are holy fools and ambassadors of another way, reminding one another just what time it is.

The Rev. Thomas B. Woodward is the former Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Salinas, California, and is now retired, living in Santa Fe, New Mexico with his wife, Ann. Both attend St. Bede's there.

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