The Taser's Edge

The Blessings of Limitedness: Time

The title of this post references a larger thought, that “in the beginning” human beings were created as finite creatures, and God called it very good.  Given this fact (which I at least think is undeniable), why do we all find ourselves constantly wishing we didn’t have limits?

What if it we actually believed that it is a good thing that we are limited?  What if we even daily gave thanks for it?  Might we find it to be the case that our finiteness is for our blessing?

What if our limitedness in time was actually most excellent?

The reason I think about this in reference to Time is that recently, a few things have been added to my schedule.  A few hours here, a few hours there, and as often seems to happen to my structures, the added weight seemingly caused the whole thing to collapse.  I am doing the new things (some after-school tutoring with a handful of DPS grade-schoolers, participating in my church’s weekly staff meeting, some other church volunteer stuff), all of which I deeply enjoy, but the other regular things which I highly value (reading for pleasure, reading for study, praying the hours, physical exercise, healthy food preparation) have just lost their place.

Think about the way we talk about Time.  We often use the phrase “time constraints,” but I am lately convinced that we actually mean “time restraints,” as in chains and bondage.  For me at least, it is much more difficult to come up with an equally striking positive metaphor.  But here’s an attempt in the form of an analogy–Time:Humans::Soil:Plants.

Ignoring sea and hydroponic plants for the sake of a simpler metaphor, what if part of Time as our natural habitat is that Time is chock-full of nutrients for our human flourishing?  (Thank you, Andy Crouch, for the phrase “human flourishing.”)

To further the thought, here are some questions from my own experience:

  • Would I ever move forward in life if I could move backwards?
  • Would I ever make a single decision when I could just decide on every course of action?  (“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, / And happy that I could travel both / And be one traveler / I am still lost in these frakkin’ yellow woods…”–Robert Frost, Time-Traveling Poet Laureate of the Twelve Colonies)
  • Outside of time, is it possible to be shaped by our decisions and actions?  (To explain, Time seems to be an integral part of how God forms us into the image of the Son through the power of the Spirit.  So the question could also be…)
  • Is it possible to become disciples or saints apart from Time?
  • Without Time, how much easier would it be to have the illusion of bringing about my own redemption and/or salvation?  (Is redemption possible in timeless reality?  With the possibility of the do-over, do I believe I need the second Adam to save me?)
  • Without Time, how much easier would it be to have the illusion of bringing about someone else’s salvation?

This last is a core question for me.  Serve others for just a little while (in my case, whether as a hospice chaplain or an after-school math and language arts tutor or a husband/friend/brother/son/nephew/you-name-the-relationship) and you simultaneously begin believing (a.) that you are the one on whom all the responsibility rests, and (b.) that there is no way that you can ever live up to that responsibility.

Time is the greatest possible refutation to this set of beliefs.  Everywhere we turn, we not only hear but experience, “You have limits.  You are not God.”  And that, like all of God’s creation, is a very good thing.  If this doesn’t remove some unnecessary weight from your shoulders, I’m not sure what will.

Bonus: Limitedness in time also helps us avoid situations like this one:

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.

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