Thursday, January 3, 2008
The Preacher’s Corner
New Year’s brings thoughts of time
With the New Year, I have been thinking about time. Humans seem to have an innate sense of time. Scientific studies have shown a remarkable continuity of this sense of the rhythms of time when volunteers go, for example, deep into caves and live for long periods with no ability to observe sunrise or sunset and without timekeeping devices of any kind. Still, the rhythms of sleeping and waking go on in a remarkably regular way.
Similarly, prisoners of war, deprived by their captors of all calendars and so forth, are notable for devising methods to record the passing of time, and even when denied paper and pens, have almost miraculously kept this data in their memories, and state that by so doing they maintained their sanity and sense of hope. Belief in the future and its promise is a basic to human existence, and humans will do almost anything to quantify this resource such as it is available to them.
It is a peculiarity of fact that many Protestant churches that do not have services on Christmas will have one on New Year’s Eve.
Dr. Davies, our wonderful Welsh minister in Chicago had grown up in the old country where the anti-Catholic prejudice against celebrating Christmas was still held, and this was also true in the Old South. People would mark the day with presents, feasting, and fireworks, but they would not hold a service in the church!
Now, by the time I came along our parish in Chicago had magnificent services on Christmas Eve and also on Christmas Day. But in deference to his upbringing (our mothers have such a powerful influence on us, even in death!) -- Dr. Davies insisted on the New Year’s Eve Watch Night Service. And although he had long ago turned over the church’s evening services to his assistant ministers, he always came over to the sanctuary from the manse next door and gave the sermon on New Year’s Eve.
In that sophisticated and highly energetic Chicago parish not many included a church service in their New Year’s Eve schedule of activities, but by attending -- (I had to go!) -- I learned something about what an older generation thought about time and its value, and so this is what I will share with you today.
We live in an age when for many of us the length of life has been marvelously extended. Through some very basic advances in public health and some stunning discoveries in medical science, the basic life expectancy for those who read these words is two or even three times what it was for our great-grandparents. But an ironic, if not understandable, consequence of this bestowal of so much extra time upon this earth -- it seems to me -- is that most of us are not too sure what to do with it, and so are oft-inclined to waste what our forebears would have regarded as an incalculably precious gift.
The marking and shepherding of time dates back to prehistoric ages. The Babylonians produced the first written calendars, and religions have generally regarded time and the sanctification of time as activities of greatest importance. Our Judeo-Christian heritage understands time as linear rather than repeating. Once a moment has come and gone, it is spent forever, and is therefore precious. Other religions see time as cyclical -- affording either a hopeful opportunity for a “do-over” in a subsequent life, or a punishment through consignment to an endless cycle of dreary repetition of sadness and sorrow through everlasting cycles of birth and death into the basically unchanging human situation.
Christians have basically believed that though life on this earth is short, one life is enough, so we had better make the most of it, “while,” as St. Paul says, “it is yet to-day!” Ben Franklin put such ideas to wonderful expression in his almanacs, coining such proverbs as, “Lost time is never found again,” “Procrastination is the thief of time,” and “if you have ought to do tomorrow, go ahead and do it today.”
It was the Greek philosopher Heraclitus who observed that one “could never step into the same river twice,” so that those who see time as a linear quantity are disposed to see opportunity as a fleeting but wonderfully pregnant possibility. The past is finished and cannot be changed, and the future is the place which God inhabits and we may look hopefully toward it, so the present is the one thing that we may truly seize and shape with the energy and ability that is upon us.
One of the most curious tales of our own area‚s history is the story of the clock that belonged to the Rev. James Holmes, who came in 1824 as a missionary to the Chickasaw people, and operated a school in the southwest part of what later became Marshall County. After a year’s work, Holmes made a trip back to Newark, N. J., to preach on behalf of the mission. His sermons attracted the notice of a young woman named Sara Anna Van Wagnen.
Holmes began courting the young woman and asked for her hand in marriage. At first she refused, but during Homes‚ second year of work at the mission school, a letter arrived, sealed with red wax, containing Sara Anna’s consent to his proposal and promise to serve with him on the field of his endeavor among the Indians of Mississippi. So in the summer of 1826, Holmes made a journey by horseback to Newark, and on July 18, claimed Sara Anna as his bride.
Among the items they brought to Mississippi was the clock I have mentioned. Willed to James Holmes on the death of his father, the huge grandfather clock, made about 1760 by cabinetmaker Daniel Oyster of Philadelphia, Pa. The works were from London. Standing 101 inches tall and already an exquisitely-expensive heirloom, the clock was shipped to James and Sara Anna on the flatbed of a wagon. It was their only luxury, and Holmes called his clock ‘Old Pope,’ “because “it was infallible!” (The clock is, by the way, preserved in the home of John Spinks, a great-grandson, in Winston Salem, N. C.)
Now, why on earth would such a household need a clock? one might ask. What need on earth would there be for a missionary schoolteacher on the frontier of Mississippi in territory where people lived in log cabins and a white man could not yet own land, to have a grandfather clock? Surely the sun’s position in the sky was sufficient to regulate the keeping of such infrequent appointments as a person in that isolated territory might occasionally need to make.
Well, other than the fact that almost everybody feels some desire to put up a few pretensions to show the world that he is well-bred and so is entitled to some standing in relation to those who might otherwise claim to be his betters, I think this incident shows the incredibly high regard Holmes‚ Puritan forebears placed on this concept we call time.
All of us, to some degree, are descendants of those Puritans. Fundamentally, the Puritans believed that it was “God’s Time,” and so the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared that wasting time was a criminal offense. In 1633 the General Court declared, “No person∑shall spend his time idly or unprofitably, under pain of such punishment as the court shall think meet to inflict; and for this end it is ordered, that the constables of every place shall use special diligence to take knowledge of offenders in this kind, especially of common coasters, unprofitable fowlers and tobacco takers, and to present the same.”
A year later the court fined two men the heavy sum of twenty shillings each for “misspending their time.”
Thus it was that an English Puritan Ralph Thoresby in November 1680 invented the alarm clock, and Ben Franklin, motivated by similar impulses, while serving as American minister to France, conceived the idea of Daylight Savings Time. Franklin was shocked that the people of Paris lost many hours of light by sleeping until midday, and then burned candles far into the night.
Such persons would have had a hard time understanding the profligacy of men such as the planter William Byrd of Virginia, who often spoke of “killing time.” Byrd’s lassitude with regard to himself did not extend to his slaves, over whom he set a drover to see that they labored in the fields from “clear dawn” until sunset. It is interesting to think about how all of these philosophies have filtered down into our present day and attitudes.
So it is that we set the Bible’s musings about time in a context. Our time “is in thy hand” (Psalm 31), or “redeeming the time, for the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:16). Many people, I think fear time and (especially as we become older) regard it as an enemy -- hence the old jokes, such as “How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb?” Answer: “Ten: one to change the bulb and nine to form a choir to sing about how much better the old one was!”
People, even (and perhaps especially) religious people, equate change with decay, as in the couplet from the beloved hymn “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide,” which says, “Change and decay in all around I see, O thou who changest not, abide with me.”
Thinking that the past is best, I believe, betrays some important aspects of our faith. The Christian belief in the return of Christ (however that may be interpreted) gives time (and the future) a value, an urgency, and a purpose. It is a promise that “the best is yet to be.” It is also an assurance that nothing worthwhile that is done is ultimately futile or finally lost, and that the Lord “who knowest my downsitting and my uprising” (Ps 139), shall as Psalm 121 puts it “preserve thy going out and thy coming in, from this time forth, and even for evermore.”
Such a confidence gives those who put their faith in God a kind of serenity and poise that enables them to wrest both a peaceful and hopeful spirit from the adversities of life.
Our detractors say that Christians squander life for the hope of heaven, but I think a sound view of time means that we are called to bring something of heaven’s quality now to our lives here on this earth.
James Holmes, the young missionary, did well with the time that was his, and may we, too, at this New Year rejoice in the time that is ours and resolve to put it to similar good uses to serve God in the needs of our fellow human beings.
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