The Taser's Edge

Vocation, the Church, and Time

How much time can you really get your head around?  10,000 years?  If you say you can, I don’t believe you.  250 years?  Perhaps just barely.  The question is really this: “From how far back can you place yourself in a relatively contiguous historical narrative?”

I’m talking specifically about the Church (as my title may have let you know), this reality in which my own few decades are coming after millennia and may be followed by millennia; or, within the whole of the Time of God, perhaps my years are book”ended” by infinity in both directions.

In this point which is my this-earthly life on the line of Time (yes, viewing time linearly for this exercise), I have things to do, a calling or callings, personal responsibility.  But I don’t knit All That Is Everything together, so I don’t need to approach life as if I do.

The point?  For as far back as I can actually imagine myself coming from (and that 250 year mark may be it for me), I want to imagine at least that far into the future for what I am working toward when I consider my calling.

Thus, the question of vocation is this: “What work of God, which God has been doing through countless people and circumstances for 250 years and more, and which God desires to continue for 250 years or more into the future, am I called to be a partially-yet-truly responsible piece of, for this day and for the next several decades, which are my this-earth life?”

Such a question makes me both more important (500 years and more on my shoulders) and less important (100 millions and more people sharing that load) than I usually view myself.  It’s not just a marathon, because a marathon is both selfish and easy in comparison; it’s the most ridiculous relay-race ever devised, with billions of participants involved, many of us not realizing that we are supposed to be on the same team.

I should say that there are a number of sources that have brought me to these thoughts:

  • Loving the Hebrew Bible
  • Loving the New Testament picture of the Jesus, the Church, and the work of God
  • Loving history
  • Loving fantasy (for many of the same reasons I love history)
  • Loving sci-fi
  • Personal anger and frustration with American historical short-sightedness (e.g., My own sense of 250 years as a ‘long time’ vs. Some family friends in England who own 18th and 19th century reproductions of furniture, and half-apologize for their inauthenticity as compared to the real furniture from hundreds of years older)
  • A friend, J, an Orthodox college chaplain who views his calling in terms of “What am I doing today so that 200 years from now my church will be able to have a clue in how to minister to college students?”
  • Rev. Canon Dr. Sam Wells, who in his Improvisation, reframes all our Protestant attempts to get back to the ‘pure’ early Church, instead asking if we might actually be the early Church
  • A year-long chaplaincy residency, in which I constantly found a wondrous tension: with God’s help I have tremendous power to do important work and to be life-giving, but I was simultaneously blocked at every turn from self-importance by the reality that I was far from any ultimate source of formation in a person’s life in which I was present for at best a few hours over a few weeks

The Christian upbringing I received taught me that Jesus could come back tomorrow afternoon.  My later movement to believe and live in a Church which is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic (with at least one, catholic, and apostolic pointing to greater historical continuity than I had yet received, and holy pointing to the transcendence of God in reference to Time) gave me a sense of history and Christianity’s future which that earlier pure apocalypticism had not.

And so now I find myself looking at Christian ethics (defined not as a corner of Christian thinking, but as the way that Christians are called to be and to do in imitation of and in sharing in Christ’s person, work, and reality) like this: We live as if Christ may return before you finish reading this sentence, and as if the Church has 10 million years to wait, which includes being willing to hear all the theological questions which that would raise for her.  (Not least, we might actually be able to talk about holy dying as we haven’t in a few hundred years; and we might be more humble about the way we do theology.)

Mentally, a 10,002,000 year window is far too big for us to handle, but I think we can live into a wider sense of time in particular ways.  For instance, I think the massiveness of time is part of the reason that remembering particular people in the communion of saints can be so helpful for our faith.  The massiveness of the reality of God in time is why we spread out focusing on particular pieces of that reality through an entire liturgical year.

And of course, because I’m writing this, I want to go back to my own present struggling: vocation.  This is why vocation is so difficult for me.  I believe that it is about praying for the senses to perceive what the Holy Spirit is already doing in the world, for a heart that desires to be a part of that work, and for the guts to actually join in that work.  And if that weren’t enough, none of it works without other people at every level.

Still too abstract?  Then try this.  I am an ordained minister in a church dedicated to new works in the form of newly planted churches, but equally dedicated to doing very old things, like living a Christianity which we believe is something received, not something which we make up (not to say that there’s not such a thing as ‘development’ or ‘growth’ or ‘improvisation’ out of those roots).

I live in Durham, North Carolina on Friday, December 10, 2010.  What is God doing here and now (a here and now which I can conceive of as a point between 250 years ago, when there was no Durham, NC, and 250 years in the future, when I have no idea if there will be a Durham, NC, but in any case a here and now which is situated squarely in the life of God in the world) and how is God calling me to be a part of that work, both in continuation of what God has always been doing, and in preparation for what God always will do?  With this question, I challenge myself to take the long view.

This replaces the normal, evangelical hubris – the assumption that we have something to offer to a person (a people, a community, a nation, a world, a universe) that no one else has to offer or ever has offered – with the hope that God actually is at work, actually wants us to join in, and that we actually have something to offer.  And in case that still leaves room for our pride (for pride, like Dr. Malcolm’s life, will find a way), remember that God’s work is to share in Christ’s suffering and death out of love and for the life of the world.

space church

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My beloved wife is fond of saying that time is “man-made.” By that she means we’re the one’s who worry about assigning ticks of the clock to everything. Scripture (Greek) uses two different words for time. First is chronos which refers to clock time. Most people have heard this before because it is the root word in chronograph, the technobabble for clock. The other Greek word for time is kairos. This second word is more like relative time, or “in God’s time.” For example, if you say it’s time to go to the store, that means you have a need and you’re ready to take care of it. It has nothing to do with the time of day. Anyway, I thought you might find that interesting.

As for me, I have a hard time wrapping my head around centuries. I don’t believe in millions of years, so that’s not much of an issue to me. When I try to conceptualize long periods I like to think in terms of generations. At about 3 to 4 generations per century, that puts about 60-80 generations between us and the time of Jesus. My wife has a copy of genealogical work that takes her father’s family back to the 9th century and that is 31 generations before her, so I figure 60 generations or a little less is probably a pretty good figure for getting back as far as Jesus’ time (chronos). I figure Jesus will come back when the time is right (kairos). ~_*

Comment by Lance Ponder

While I do find the distinction between chronos and kairos helpful sometimes, the problem is when we make a distinction in value between the two. That is, chronos is just as packed with meaning as kairos.

As for thinking of time in terms of generations, that’s a neat idea, especially for how relational it makes the passage of time.

Finally, while my early theological imagination put God as totally separate from Time and totally in a different reality, I’ve learned more recently that there are theologians who would say that God’s difference from us in relation to Time is not that God is apart from Time but that God experiences and inhabits Time more deeply than we are able. Kind of like how a 2-dimensional object simply can’t inhabit 3-d space the way a 3-d (or more-d) object can.

Comment by tasersedge

Thanks for the feedback. I think you’re right about the 2D/3D comparison. We’re not God so how can we expect to comprehend? We are not called to comprehension. When I hit those intellectual walls I am ever so thankful to know I don’t have to comprehend.

Comment by Lance Ponder

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