We live on a sand dune high above Lake Michigan. Over time, the landscape changes entirely, eroded and caressed by calm and storm alike. Mostly rugged, sometimes docile, its environment is never static, always blowing, moving, and changing in westerly gales that send the sand airborne and provoke water into indignant waves. The sand itself is really trillions of pieces of tiny, crushed quartz and feldspar ground fine and white by retreating glaciers. In the winds, it stings your face, then settles to rebuild the dune grain by grain.
As I write, I am living in an RV in the Arizona desert. This too is a harsh environment of relentless sun, sand, and abrasive winds. Mountains, mesas, and buttes form and reform over eons, undulating, sanded down, ever shifting. The stately saguaro takes nearly 100 years to produce the arms that send praises heavenward. It is hard to be self-reliant in these environments. Jesus’ forty days in the desert wilderness reminds me to slow down, unbend, look to far horizons, endure, and, most of all, to pray, because in the dune and the desert, time is unhurried.
Building a Life
The arc of life is temporal, directional, elastic, and very much mortal. The next breath is future to the oncoming past of my present exhalation. All to say that the present is incalculably short, yet like grains of sand, those moments, one by one, build up a dune and a life over time. A lifetime. The irony is that the present only lasts mere seconds before it is history; that our misguided desire to cling to it, to freeze it and photograph and post it keeps us from embracing God’s gifts and grace of future.
We have a dogged, unrelenting “need” to stop time, to avoid aging in ways that are rooted in fear that bubbles up from an ignorance of God’s promises. Yes, our own human temporality looms over us, most especially in the second half of our life. In our youth, time stretches before us in a great swath of possibility and promise. At halftime, we must reassess our days and years, melding memory with history while making plans that look so far forward that we often get ahead of ourselves. I can assure you that the two-minute warning toward the end of life arrives unexpectedly.
I am somewhat bewildered to find myself in the sunset of my life because I got here so quickly. I see it as a time for reflection upon the erosion and shaping that time has effected upon me and my character. Life as a college professor at a Christian college was such a surprising gift from God. I loved how it set me firmly into a preset calendar of busy-ness and hustle. In those middle years of my life, I never had any time. The lines and days were stringently scheduled.
My family will readily tell you how far I missed the mark by making my calling an obsession. I spent myself. And being spent automatically implies that priorities are misplaced like Augustine’s disordered loves. Lately I have discovered that busy is a dirty little word that has no virtue. Sometimes, time is a thief that clandestinely robs us of a number of our days already measured out and numbered for us by God.
Although God lives outside of time, he gives us the gift of cyclical nature and liturgical calendar to help us land in pleasant places. When we hem ourselves in according to the rhythms of church and nature, we find ourselves blessed by the vivid and visceral cadence of seasons, birthdays, and heartbeat, and by the annual advent of God’s Incarnation and Resurrection. Like beautiful music, life becomes a hymn of praise that undulates with tempo and volume, harmonized in the ascents and descents of days strung together; and there was evening and there was morning, a day. Time since the beginning.
A God Outside of Time
In the beginning was the Word (John 1). There was never a time that Jesus wasn’t. He voluntarily made the deep dive from throne to manger in the fullness of time, an incarnation of spirit to flesh, squeezed from the glorious immensity of heaven into the confines of fewer dimensions, embracing the limited human design of bone, blood, thirst, hunger, weariness, breath, life, and death.
His time on earth was short—about 33 years. His ministerial mantra was that his time had not yet come. But when it did, he obeyed it even to death on a cross to make a way across the weighty chasm between us and God the Father, securing for each believer a place in the forever of the new Jerusalem, come down to a new earth. So, time stretches infinitely into eternity. How dare we complain there isn’t enough?
We do not own time, nor can we spend it like money. We are conditioned to treat time as a commodity that we can and must control, believing our time belongs to us to the point that we resent the claim of others on our time. When Jesus tells us to empty ourselves, this automatically includes sacrificing our grip on this false ownership of time. We live in time. Through it. We inhabit it (see J.K.A. Smith’s new book, How to Inhabit Time). Time is a home, made up of lines and spheres that God gives us all in good time. All in God’s own time. Time is a good gift through which we unfold our stiff necks to redeem a fallen world, to resolve conflict, to reconcile with those we have hurt or been hurt by, to recalibrate our moments by returning to the God who will not leave us. In the end, it is all so ridiculously simple: time is for loving and serving God and neighbor. Loving. Serving.
The patience of time
A modern saying is that time waits for no one, but I don’t believe this is true. Time does wait, and so must we. Time does stand still, particularly in our grief and lament, in our lingering, heartsore sorrows. Time does not heal. Only God does, and he gives us time to make our way through such deserts. When our prayers go unanswered, when God whispers to us that we must wait in his all-sufficiency, then we can do nothing but wait, trust, and hope that time, like love, is patient and kind.
Things. Times. Eras. People. All will pass away. The believer grows and matures in the interval between life and death, rebirth and resurrection. Time brings an erosion of self in which Spirit-breath has worn down our rough edges and sanded smooth the “I” to reveal the greater I AM, the “me” to promote the “we” of the Church. It is a blessed humiliation from God the Timekeeper. We cherish the history that the arc of the biblical narrative unfolds from Creation to the Fall, to God’s plan of redemption at the cross, and, finally, to the consummation of Christ’s return when the time is ripe. So, we leave our vanity in the dirt to make the ascent from earth to God and heaven, losing parts of ourselves along the way, not to an ending but to a new, whole, white-robed self, a death-induced transformation into a glowing bride.
None of this mortal life, constrained by time, this living and dying, this birth and rebirth, is new—except to us. Life in the limitlessness of eternity keeps the possibilities possible. And this? This is hope: that it is never too late to be called to the astonishing timing of God’s eternal glory in Christ.
And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you (1 Peter 5:10).