By Dave Drum
I really don’t have time for this.
Quoting a contemporary commercial, allow me to be “Captain Obvious” for just a moment – I am speaking autobiographically. If you as the reader do not have time for this, you are not reading it, so this exercise is rather pointless. You are deciding right now whether this article is worth your time or not. Only time will tell how many make it to the end, and thankfully, I will never know.
I am writing this on my Sabbath, because I did not have enough time lying around this last week to squeeze it in. But reflecting on time is quite sabbatical, and I am actually feeling quite theologically resonant as I write this. The truth is I have offered many hours to the gods of distraction in the name of Sabbath rest that are far less germane to the Sabbath than what I am doing right now.
Have you ever considered the irony of the phrase, “I’m just buying time”? It doesn’t mean that the speaker is purchasing some additional time, with the result that afterwards they will have more time than what they started with. It actually means that they are wasting time, delaying, doing nothing in the moment because of some anticipated event in the future. “I’m just buying time” means “I’m just losing time.”
If time actually was for sale, I know several takers. I suspect that if time were a purchasable commodity here in our country, it would quickly surpass gold as the asset of choice. You could probably make a case that so-called time-saving devices drive our entire economy. You would think that with all the time saving devices most of us own, we would not know what to do with all our time. But how is that working out for us? No question, you can get someplace faster in a car than on a horse. But which driver gives the impression of being in a hurry more – the driver of a horse and buggy, or the driver of a car? Cars save months of time on cross-country trips compared to horse and buggies. Airplanes save days compared to cars, but I am always scrambling to get to the airport on time. Cell phones save all kinds of time – I do not have to wait until I get home to make my phone calls, especially now that I can use that fancy Bluetooth thing to channel people through my car radio. The result of my time-saving cell phone? Now I’ll often make phone calls while walking across the street. I have so much more time. Not.
On my first mission trip to Tanzania in 2007, I heard a wise man say, “You Americans have watches, but we Africans have time.” I’ve never forgotten that proverb. When our guide told us we’d start teaching at 9:00 the next morning, my anxiety levels grew noticeably as I watched her stop and talk to everyone along the way. 9:00 was rapidly moving to the rearview mirror. When do we start? When people get here, that’s when. On my second trip in 2009, I had a better sense of what to expect. It was almost like the air was different when I stepped off the plane. I immediately relaxed, and adjusted to a slower, more sane pace of life. I knew instantly that people were the priority of every day, not stuff. I changed when I got off the plane in Africa, but I changed back as soon as I landed in the States. Subsequent mission trips have revealed the same thing, as vacations can, too, to a lesser extent – once we learn not to fill them margin-to-margin. But how quickly we forget. After my family’s mission trip to the jungles of Belize last year, I came back with three golden truths that I asked my coach to help me apply to my daily life. First, all time is God’s. Second, relationships trump tasks. Third, put God first, literally and figuratively. I consciously did well with that for a few months – which probably is my personal best when it comes to time.
Psalm 90:12 says, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (NIV). Wisdom, with respect to time, starts, I believe, with the realization that time is a gift. Other translations say, “Teach us to realize the brevity of life, so that we may grow in wisdom” (NLT), and “Teach us to use wisely all the time we have” (CEV). I want to share three implications of that truth.
Because time is a gift, the first implication is that: Time is not earned.
If we work for something, like our paycheck, we do not often think of it as a gift when it comes. We think of it as ours, as something we earned. Now truthfully, every good thing we have is a gift, including the ability to make a living. But there is no way in which we can say that time is earned. It’s a gift in its entirety.
Have you ever said to your kids, “Handle that plate carefully – it is a gift”? We tend to treat gifts with extra care and attention. When we visited our Compassion child, Mary in Tanzania, she gave us several gifts. That moment remains one of the most humbling of my life – those gifts are priceless to us. Nobody is going to cook dinner with the wooden spoon she gave us. We treat gifts with extra care.
We also associate gifts closely with the Giver. When I look at that spoon from Mary, I do not think about the spoon, I think about the person who gave it to me. Gifts point us to the Giver.
And if we can think of time as gift instead of something that is inherently ours, it will help us to hold it more loosely. When Jesus was going from one place to another, often with a stated purpose, He commonly would get interrupted along the way. He never showed irritation at those interruptions, because He always looked to the Father to see what God was doing. Time is a gift. Perhaps God allowed this interruption precisely so that He could show His love in a powerful way. Interruptions might be the point of the day, not something throwing us off track. Can you imagine what a difference it would make each morning if we saw the day as a gift, and interruptions as the possible point of the day?
The second implication of the fact that time is a gift: Time is not entitled.
This one traps us in countless ways. What is one of the first things we think when someone dies young? “It is so unfair. That person had a whole lifetime in front of them. It is so unfair.” What is the implication of this? That we’re all entitled to some predetermined amount of time, probably 80 years or so – unless we are approaching 80, in which case it is more than that.
I am not saying that it isn’t exceedingly painful when a child dies. Of course it is. But part of what makes it so painful is our underlying assumption that we are entitled to a certain number of years here on earth. Countries with lower life expectancies have less of a sense of entitlement. We met women in Tanzania who lost a child and were back at work the next day. And I would be willing to bet there is not a person living in Nkungi on antidepressants. Is it because they love their children less? That question would be just plain racist. Or because they experience less tragedy than we do? That question would be just plain stupid. Is it because they cannot afford antidepressants? Well, that possibility is probably true, but I’ve never met happier people anywhere, so the un-affordability of Prozac doesn’t seem to result in a whole group of depressed people. No, it is because they have less of a sense of entitlement. They see life itself as a gift. And they are mentally and emotionally healthier as a result.
In the interest of moving away from our entitled sense of time, we need to apply the Apostle Paul’s perspective: “From now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view” (2 Cor. 5:16 NIV). What does that mean? Well, one of the things it means is that this life is just a warm-up for eternal life. Compare 10 years to eternity and you get the exact same result as if you compare 100 years to eternity. Both pale by comparison. From an eternal perspective, can a baby with serious birth defects accomplish God’s purposes by being loved for only a few days here before dying, and then for all eternity later? The reason sharing Jesus with others matters so much is that eternity is the real deal. This is just the warm-up.
And the third implication of the fact that time is a gift is that: Time is not endless, yet!
Time here on this earth is a limited quantity. We are all living on fixed incomes when it comes to incoming time. We do not know how much time we will have here, but we do know it will not be endless. Time is a non-renewable resource, here.
Picking up on the implication that we are not entitled to a certain number of years, are we okay with the fact that the Giver sets the terms? Givers get to decide how much they want to give. Jesus tells a story of a landowner who hires workers at various points during the day, and then at the end of the day, pays them all the same amount. If that story bothers us, it is either because we do not see work itself as a gift, which in the story it clearly was, or because there is an entitlement mentality that is tripping us up. The Giver gets to set the terms of the gift, always – including how much time we have here on this earth. He doesn’t cause every disaster that allows life to get cut short – free will does that – but an all-powerful God either allows things to happen that He does not cause, or He is not all powerful.
God intends life to be endless. Look in Genesis 2, and see that God created a tree of life and did nothing to prevent Adam and Eve from eating its fruit and living forever. He wants to spend eternity with each of us. God blocked access to the tree later only because He doesn’t want us living forever in the brokenness caused by our sin. He sent Jesus to reverse both – life that ends in death, and life marred by sin. In the meantime, it helps to remember that life here has a beginning and an ending, and living in ignorance, pretending that if we do not think about death, it will not ever happen – that is foolish.
While there are many applications to those three implications, since it is still my Sabbath here, I am going to end with just one that is particularly resonant with my day.
Seek first God’s Kingdom.
The punch line to one of Jesus’ greatest teachings on priorities and time is exactly that – seek first God’s Kingdom, and God will take care of your needs (Matthew 5:33 paraphrase). “Seek first God’s kingdom” is not merely a theological statement; if someone could not look at our calendars and say that we are seeking first God’s kingdom – guess what? We are not.
So what does that mean? Well, it means more than this, but part of what it means is worship. Worship is not a noun, something we attend – it is a verb, something we do. Worship means looking up, focusing on God instead of on myself or my needs. I have never been a farmer, but I have been told that the only way a farmer can keep the rows straight is by looking up, looking out ahead. Look down and you will wobble all over the place. I know that is true if you are a guard in basketball. If you are looking down at the basketball instead of up at what is coming, you are a turnover waiting to happen.
It is true with time also. Right after Paul writes, “make the most of every opportunity,” he says, “Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:16 & 19 NIV). When we can look up in worship, it will change our perspective on the day. In fact, getting beyond ourselves is simply the only way to get the proper perspective on our days. Worship includes what we do together on Sundays, but it certainly is not limited to it.
This morning one of the first worship songs we sang was Matt Redman’s Ten Thousand Reasons. The first verse has these words in it:
The sun comes up, it’s a new day dawning
It’s time to sing Your song again
Whatever may pass, and whatever lies before me
Let me be singing when the evening comes.
I immediately thought of my grandmother, Wilhelmena Drum. Just ten days ago I was back in Ohio for her funeral. She was ninety-eight. When evening came, she was singing: during her last couple of days in the hospital, she was singing about going to heaven. But in some of her very last words, she told her daughter by her bedside, “I really, really love you.” And then she said, “I really, really love everybody.” That is a perspective taken straight out of heaven, and wrestled to earth. My grandma never made it to Tanzania, but she did not need to.
I really did not have time for this. I had to allow God to make time for this. And I am so glad He did, because it has helped reorient me again, just like Sabbaths are intended to do.