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Related Bible reading(s): Psalm 90.1-8,(9-11),12; 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11; Matthew 25.14-30

PostScript: Time on our hands

 Having tasted freedom we live under restrictions again. This week’s readings help us dwell on the quality, as well as quantity of the time in which we are confined (Psalm 90; 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11; Matthew 25.14-30).

 

Context

With democracy, especially America’s embarrassed version, under scrutiny; with separation from the European Union, Scottish independence and a ‘now you see it now you don’t’ Irish border under awkward consideration; with millions displaced by tyranny and conflict; with casual racist language prompting the resignation of the Chair of the FA; with a shudder of excitement about the prospect of a vaccine, tempting us to go back to ignoring our neighbour; with thousands of students trying to make the best of a bleak university experience, while schools struggle with shortness of time to recover deprived children’s lost learning, we have much to hold in the revealing light of today’s readings.

Like the little church in Thessalonica, troubled and bereaved, we may be allowed feelings of helplessness, dismay, depression. To lift them up, and us, St Paul firmly encourages us to dwell on faith, love and hope.

 

Reflection

Imagine
On the station platform a man realises he is tapping his foot, his body telling him he is excited, impatient. He watches the seconds counted by the clock, wishing they would go more quickly. Five minutes seems interminable. His daughter will soon be getting off the train. Then he feels a strange pang, realising the ticking seconds are his life. Each one brings him nearer his death. It's a fleeting shift of perspective. He still wants them to go quickly, but there's an added wistfulness now. The very fact of a daughter implies his death.

At last the train comes in, brakes squealing. The people tumble off and she's there. They hug. He feels the uncomplicated warmth, the depth of togetherness, he is purely and completely present. All the world was created and history unfolded so this moment could happen. Infinity is felt in a second. As they make their way happily home, he thinks how now he wants the time to go slowly. The visit already feels too short.

The Greeks helpfully have two words for time:

  • Chronos is the time that (nowadays) ticks. The man is living in chronos as he taps his foot impatiently and senses his life passing by.
  • Kairos is the hugeness and depth of the moment of their hug. It is also the waiting, the longing, the wistfulness of knowing she no longer lives with him, yet the gladness at her independence and the unique joy of a visit from his now adult daughter: a new layer of emotional richness, a nuance to love that he learns to inhabit, knowing it is only possible to feel this glorious feeling because of the passing of chronos

Chronos isn't bad. Far from it. It gives us music. Because some brilliant people focus hard on chronos, measured in minims and crochets, we can experience the infinite kairos time of a symphony or song. But if we fixate on chronos, we can find ourselves either bored or in panic, so missing the kairos, the sense of presence, depth, rightness of moment. Fulness of life is found in kairos, which we apprehend when we accept the reality of chronos and our mortality.

Read Psalm 90
Here is an attempt to balance these two perspectives of time. Some verses are quite frightening, the relentless passage of time melding in the poet's mind with the angry judgement of God. But eventually, they reach a place of acceptance, both of judgement and the limitations of chronos, and can say with glorious freedom: ‘so teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart’ (v.12). Living well in chronos, we discover the depth of kairos and make every moment count. 

How are you with time in this further month of confinement and restrictions on visits and hugs? I wonder who you are longing to meet on a station platform and if the time is passing painfully slowly, each sonorous tick deepening the sense of isolation. Then maybe it goes horribly quickly as you feel the months evaporating without seeing someone you love, their mortality or yours seeming more urgent and worrisome. These are understandable chronos preoccupations. It is important to name them. Accepting them, like the psalmist watching grass wither, is hard at first, but is not the end of the matter. The Psalmist, St Paul and Jesus all show us how, whatever our circumstances, we can turn any moment into a kairos moment of depth.

‘Times and seasons’ (1 Thessalonians 5.1) translates ‘chronos and kairos’. Paul reassures the young church that they already know how to balance these well, even in times of persecution and hardship. As he writes, though, they are feeling frustrated and worried. Chronos is both dragging and hurrying as they feel the constraints of living under an oppressive empire which calls all the shots. It's a kind of coercive abusive relationship where the Empire says, ‘all is peaceful under our rule’ and yet keeps that supposed peace by the constant threat of brutal violence. Less extreme, but worth comparison, we may consider the tone of both American and British politics hearing the oscillation between ‘this great country of ours’ and ‘be afraid, be very afraid’ as an attempt at coercive control.

Paul undermines this with splendidly unsettling images. First, casting Jesus as a thief (a joke Jesus himself cracked) he evokes the dismay Rome will feel when the one they crucified between two thieves returns to show love wins. To a coercive controlling leader, wisdom and compassion do appear to steal from you; for they gently dissolve the power you are gripping so tightly in your hands. We can think of someone describing wise voters as thieves at the moment. How pathetic that powerful man looks, all alone in his golf kart. He’s grinding his teeth in an outer darkness of his own making.

Then, Paul feminises the talk of empire, saying the great powers will be shocked by the onset of unstoppable pain like a woman in labour. This is powerful because it does imagine those wedded to empire will eventually find new life. It is a positive pain. He is not gleeful about his persecutors’ suffering. He says they will find the transition hard, but they will be included in the new order of the universe when Christ comes. He therefore reflects on who we are to be as we wait (chronos) for the day of the Lord and live well with the waiting (kairos). Day, night, sober, drunk? How do you live when you know Christ will have the last word?

Still playing with the Empire, Paul shows them how to live using the picture of Roman armour which he hilariously puts in the service of Christ. The breastplate, he imagines as faith and love, the helmet as hope. (He'll use this again in his letters to Corinth and Ephesus.)

Faith is trust that Jesus' death meets us in ours and his resurrection promises ours. His company in our chronos-measured life changes perspective. That trust banishes the fear that chronos can wield and ignites every moment with kairos depth.

Love is agape, the love which actively seeks the welfare of others, whether or not they care for you. This defiant love would even care for the Roman soldier who threatens you; it's the love that perceives his armour does not protect his soul.

Hope is the confidence in the authority of heaven that allows you to see earthly power for what it is. It is living knowing Jesus has the last word.


For discussion

If you live alone you might arrange to Zoom or talk with a faithful friend about these things.

Faith: if you feel troubled or depressed in lockdown, you are not alone. It does not mean you lack faith. Christ came to the cross in order to prove he is with you in your frustration, pain and confinement. He meets you there and will not explain it away. Feel him with you (1 Thessalonians 5.10).

Love: knowing he is with you, remember that dazzling moment on the cross when Jesus had a tender conversation with the thief next to him. Even there, agape can make the horrible moment meaningful. I wonder who you might speak with tenderly today. Who might be delighted to receive a call or a card from you that fixes nothing, but shows them you are praying for them (1 Thessalonians 5.11)?

Hope: Having begun to look outwards, and finding warmth creeping in from the promise of resurrection, I wonder which earthly powers today you trust and which look shabby or oppressive. Which institutions will experience Jesus' presence as a threat and why? Who is proclaiming peace and who is issuing threats and how far do you trust them? Now you are well placed to pray for those in power (1 Thessalonians 5.3).


Prayer

Faith
God, I feel time slipping by, and I feel it dragging.
Let me feel you with me, that I may find meaning in each moment.
Smooth away my fear so that I can find blessings in these circumstances and beauty in my longing for company, for agency, for sacraments and singing.
Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.

Love
God, you know who I miss terribly.
I lift them to you and ask you to protect and reassure them.
I take courage now to ask that you will also bless those whom I don't miss:
those I am angry or disillusioned with.
Teach me what it means to love those I don't like or find hard to respect.
For I trust you died and rose for them as well as for me.
Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.

Hope
God, with you the future is always full of possibility.
Knowing you are with me stirs my love.
You banish resentment.
Help me to make the most of the strange opportunities lockdown may be offering, that, when it is over, I will not merely hand back to you the ‘talent’ of this time, but in my thanksgiving, give you back your abundant gifts with interest.
Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.

Looking further afield, we might pray:

God, some of us are
  exhausted by restraint,
  subdued by loneliness,
  disorientated by diagnosis,
  dumbfounded by incompetence,
  hurt by casual prejudice,
  dismayed by politics,
  bewildered by bereavement,
  imprisoned by fear.

We do not want you to explain these away.

We name them candidly to you.

In frustrating time, give us patience
to let the richness of your time show through,
that we may be 
  humbled by courage,
  amazed by generosity,
  touched by affection,
  moved by empathy,
  surprised by neighbourliness,
  inspired by ingenuity,
  healed by gratitude,
  enlivened by hope.
Amen.

 

All ages/generations together

If there are people of different ages in your household, you could together make some shortbread flavoured with rosemary, a herb associated with remembrance. Chronos will look after the shortbread cooking, while making it and eating it gives you kairos time together, when you can talk about what you remember this season: war and peace, unknown warriors, sacrifice, fireworks recalling threats to parliament, and the people in your family or church who have died and whose memory shapes your character.

Rosemary shortbread

  • Sift and rub lightly together: Six ounces (180g) plain flour; three ounces (90g) cornflour; three ounces (90g) caster sugar; six ounces (180g) butter into a light fine texture. (My hands tend to be warm, so I usually use a mixer!)
  • Take the leaves of a sprig of rosemary and chop finely. Stir into the mix.
  • Put into a tin and press just lightly to firm it slightly. It should be about ¾ inch (2cm) deep. (Adjust the above quantities so you have the right amount for whatever size tin you have – mine is 7 inches (18cm) square.)
  • Bake at 180 °C until pale golden in colour. Check after about fifteen minutes.
  • Cut into portions in the tin while still hot. Turn out when cooler. Dust with a little more caster sugar.

Music time

Let the chronos rhythms of a favourite piece of music work on your heart.

If there are several of you at home, you could listen to one another’s choices of music that restores your faith, speaks of love or gives you hope.

Or find ‘How can I keep from Singing?’ on Spotify or some other provider – perhaps Enya’s soft rendition, or Eva Cassidy’s for more energy. If you know it from church, here are the lyrics and, while we can’t sing in church, in your living room you can sing like only God is listening!

 

My life goes on in endless song

Above earth’s lamentation.
I catch the sweet, though far off hymn
That hails a new creation.

No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that Rock I’m clinging.
Since love is Lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?

Through all the tumult and the strife,
I hear the music ringing.
It finds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?
No storm can shake my inmost calm...

What though my joys and comforts die?
The Lord my saviour liveth.
What though the darkness round me close?
Songs in the night he giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm…

The Peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,
A fountain ever springing.
All things are mine since I am his!
How can I keep from singing?
No storm can shake my inmost calm...

Words: Robert Lowry and Doris Penn; Music: Robert Lowry

 

David Warbrick is Vicar of All Saints Kings Heath in the Diocese of Birmingham. That his recipes use half old, and half metric measurements shows which generation he belongs to. He is at the stage where he has to discipline himself not to become the grumpy old codger in the corner.

 

KEY:  icon indicates ways to connect faith with everyday life

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