The following piece first appeared in the Faith Formation and Education newsletter. Subscribe to receive future newsletters.
“God, how long is a million years to you?”
“Child, a million years is like a second.”
“And how much is a million dollars?”
“A million dollars is like a penny.”
“May I have a penny, God?”
“In a second, child.”
That little story I read in Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s memoir Colored People more than two decades ago has helped me when I’ve felt time acting like a harsh taskmaster. It reminds me that time is relative, and how we think of it largely determines how we experience it.
For many of us, this quarantine has placed our external schedules on hold. We’re left to answer how we can make good use of the time at hand. That’s caused anxiety for many, certainly for me. Then one morning last week, I noticed that I was feeling something. Something not bad, pretty good, even.
In his wonderful book At Home in the Muddy Water, Ezra Bayda suggests that “What is this?” makes a great focus for meditation. As I spent time with that question, it dawned on me that I was doing something that, without claiming to be an expert on the topic, I might call “very Zen.” Some Zen masters describe the essence of their practice this way: “When hungry, eat. When tired, sleep.” I realized that, at least for the moments I allowed myself to trust it, these unstructured days let me do exactly that. The truth is, for the most part I know what things I need to get done without a schedule keeping my nose to the proverbial grindstone. And not being driven by clock and calendar leaves me better able to see the needs of those around me. I can respond organically—or not, but either way, that’s on me.
It’s true that living tightly scheduled lives enables us to get a lot done and to coordinate with others. But we need to remember that Jesus says the Sabbath is made for us, not us for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27), and ask whether our relationships with our schedules are healthy. In a masterful study published in the Harvard Theological Review, the late Old Testament scholar James Muilenburg observed that biblical time is not about measures or quantities, but about quality and “the nature of the content with which [time] is filled.” The ancients envisioned time as a path. That’s why “it came to pass” is one of the most frequently used phrases in scripture.
Physicist Carlo Rovelli sounds positively biblical when he writes in The Order of Time that “The world is not like a platoon advancing at the pace of a single commander. It’s a network of events affecting each other.”
For those of us with the privilege of experiencing what may paradoxically be referred to as “too much time,” what if one of the ways we use it is to reflect on time itself and how we live in it? If our practice in Eastertide is to look for signs of resurrection life, ask “Where am I most alive? What parts of my job and other activities make me feel alive? What relationships are life-giving?” Marie Kondo sparked a widespread movement for “tidying up” by taking each object in our lives and asking whether it gives us joy. If we can do that for a sweater, how much more can we do it for our activities and relationships?
The late José Hobday, a Seneca elder and Franciscan sister, wrote with gratitude that her Seneca grandmother taught her that the secret to happiness is to give to each task the amount of time it takes to complete it thoroughly. For those (like me) who’ve internalized the habit of bouncing from one thing to another according to the dictates of our schedules, could we develop a practice following Sister Hobday’s grandmother’s advice?
How would our days be transformed if our primary focus moved away from calendars and to-do lists and focused more on acting out our vocation as we experience it and nurturing the relationships that sustain us? One of the important questions we can ask at this moment is about what things we want to carry with us as life gets back to “normal.” Might a healthier, more loving, more connected relationship with time be among them?
Bob Scott is Director of Faith Formation and Education at Trinity Church Wall Street. Join him online for The Broad Way Bible Study, Mondays at 1pm. To sign up, email BScott@trinitywallstreet.org.
Watch a TED talk by a leading psychologist on a way of understanding time and activity that leads to creativity, satisfaction, and happiness.
Use your time to go deeper. Trinity Church Wall Street’s Online Christian Formation Library is at your disposal. You are invited to find a topic that piques your interest and dive in.
- The Rev. Kristen Kaulbach Miles’ sermon this Sunday
- Dr. Kathy Bozzuti-Jones offers short meditations for these times
- MeditOcean, a unique meditation series from the Monterey Bay Aquarium