In the Middle
of a life that's as complicated as everyone else's,
struggling for balance, juggling time.
The mantle clock that was my grandfather's
has stopped at 9:20; we haven't had time
to get it repaired. The brass pendulum is still,
the chimes don't ring. One day you look out the window,
green summer, the next, and the leaves have already fallen,
and a grey sky lowers the horizon. Our children almost grown,
our parents gone, it happened so fast. Each day, we must learn
again how to love, between morning's quick coffee
and evening's slow return. Steam from a pot of soup rises,
mixing with the yeasty smell of baking bread. Our bodies
twine, and the big black dog pushes his great head between;
his tail is a metronome, 3/4 time. We'll never get there,
Time is always ahead of us, running down the beach, urging
us on faster, faster, but sometimes we take off our watches,
sometimes we lie in the hammock, caught between the mesh
of rope and the net of stars, suspended, tangled up
in love, running out of time.
~ Barbara Crooker ~
Sonnets to Orpheus, Part One, XXII
We set the pace.
But this press of time --
take it as a little thing
next to what endures.
All this hurrying
soon will be over.
Only when we tarry
do we touch the holy.
Young ones, don't waste your courage
racing so fast,
flying so high.
See how all things are at rest --
darkness and morning light,
blossom and book.
~ Rainer Maria Rilke ~
Just after New Year’s, a young friend of mine rushed back from her holiday to university to attend a special January session. For one month, she is focusing her attention exclusively on one subject – sun dials, learning about their theory, their physics, their history and even building a few sundials of her own.
When I heard this – I have to be honest – I laughed. Her University has a bit of a hippy reputation anyway, but sundials? Come on! I laughed, as I glanced at my super-accurate Swiss watch, checked my diary on my pocket digital organiser, and updated the church’s schedule of activities on the web. Sundials! Bah!
But, as I rushed frantically from one task to another, that image of a sundial kept popping into the front of my mind.
Just imagine how different life would be if the casual accuracy of the sundial was enough.
Here’s a story:
An American tourist was visiting a small Mexican coastal village. He was standing at the pier of this sleepy little community when a small boat arrived at the dock with one fisherman aboard. Inside the small boat were several large, beautiful yellowfin tuna. The tourist compliment the fisherman on the quality of these fabulous fish and asked how long it took to catch them.
“Oh, only a short time” replied the Mexican.
The tourist asked “why didn’t you stay out longer then and catch more fish?”
The fisherman replied “with these fish, I have more than enough to support my family’s needs”
“Well, then, what do you do with the rest of your time” asked the American.
The Mexican fisherman said, "I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my friends. I have a full and busy life."
The tourist scoffed, “I can help you” he said. “You should spend more time fishing; and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat: With the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats. Eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor; eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing and distribution. You could leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then Los Angeles and eventually New York where you could run your ever-expanding enterprise.”
The Mexican fisherman asked, "Well, how long will this all take?"
The tourist replied, “15 to 20 years.”
“And what then?” asked the Mexican.
The tourist laughed and said, "That's the best part. When the time is right you would sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions.”
The American said, “Why, then you would retire! Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your friends.”
Funny, but sadly true…
Now, I don’t want you to read too much into the fact that the tourist in the story is an American, but we do have a well-deserved reputation for frantic activity.
And, those of you who know me best will recognise that, at least in the case of our topic today, I do not always practice what I preach. I fill up my time. If I find that I have five extra minutes in my day, I take that as a sign that I could easily take on some new task or project. Before long, I’m saying ‘yes’ to some request when I should be saying ‘sorry – I can’t take on anything else right now.’
Many of us are so caught up in running that we don’t remember what we’re supposed to be running towards… How did we get here? How is that so many of us end up rushing through life to the tick, tick, tick of a theoretical construct that we’ve allowed to rule our lives?
Well, we’ve blamed him before – notably for having our Unitarian ancestor Michael Servetus burned at the stake – and now I am going to blame him again. It was John Calvin who got a lot of this started.
A key element of Calvinist belief was that a subset of people – the Elect – were chosen by God for salvation. These were only Christian people, of course, and only a subset of Christians at that. Everyone who isn’t one of the elect is, according to this dismal doctrine, damned to eternal punishment. Worse yet – there was no changing the verdict – no appeal – no time off for good behaviour. If you are not one of the elect, nothing you can do will alter the location of your infernal eternal retirement home.
Now, Calvin also stipulated that it is impossible to know for sure whether any given person is one of the Elect or not. The only evidence is in how the person fares in life and so worldly success was seen as a sign of God’s favour, while poverty, illness, and other forms of misery – well, obviously more likely to be headed down than up. Idleness was almost certainly an indication that one was damned.
Where Calvinist doctrine became dominant, seeming to be one of the Elect had some very significant social advantages, and so everyone wanted to be part of that group. If you wanted to be seen as someone who was likely one of the Elect, what should you do then? Work! Work hard, work constantly!
Calvin taught that to work is God’s will. And while his followers were not to lust after wealth, neither were they to help those less well off – we wouldn’t want to mess with what is – after all – God’s will – now would we?
Instead the successful were to reinvest their profits into more and more new ventures leading to greater and greater wealth for the wealthy and no relief for the poor.
We call the resulting pattern of behaviour the Protestant work ethic – but, the Protestant work ethic is not only for Protestants anymore! Thanks to the wonders of popular culture and advertising, atheists, Catholics, Jews, Buddhists – we can all be workaholics! It’s become an equal-opportunity pathology.
And now that we know that – and I do know that, at least some of the time – why don’t we stop? One of the most important reasons is that many of us really don’t know who we are when we’re sitting still. We don’t feel like we have an identity for who we are, but only for what we do. If you are not worker, or volunteer, or helper, or – yes – minister – who are you and what is your worth?
Unitarianism teaches us that we are each worthy on our own. It is inherent to our nature. We don’t buy this Calvinist nonsense that we are predestined for salvation or damnation. However you understand those words – whether you believe in heaven and hell in another plane or believe that the only heaven and hell are what we make of life right here and now, we are all worthy of heaven – in our hearts, at our core, even without working ourselves to death.
Now you may object, and rightly so, that there is no excuse for just sitting around all day collecting benefits if we are able to work. You may also point out that we need to help others.
Yes – we need balance. Most of us need to work to sustain ourselves and helping others is something that all of us should do. But, not to the extent of filling up all of our time.
Time – free time… it sounds almost sinful to me. If it sounds that way to you, then you have it as bad as I do! Idle hands are the devil’s playground, right?
Abraham Joshua Heschel – the 20th century Jewish Theologian who famously marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King in antiwar protests – offers an importantly different view of time. He asks where the likeness of God is to be found. His answer:
“…There is no quality that space has in common with the essence of God. There is not enough freedom on the top of the mountain; there is not enough glory in the silence of the sea. Yet the likeness of God can be found in time, which is eternity in disguise.”
God is found in time… When have you had your most spiritual experiences? Was it while racing from one event to another? Working to beat the clock to finish an assignment? While filling time with television? For me, these moments have always come when I have allowed myself a rare moment of “free time” – a moment to notice a flower, to look at the stars, to notice the special something that lies behind the eyes of each person. The sacred becomes visible only when we stop doing and give ourselves a moment to just be.
“Only when we tarry, do we touch the holy”, said Rilke in the words of this morning’s second reading.
Soren Kierkegaard chimed in with his own statement that is about as far from the Calvinist perspective as can be: “Far from idleness being the root of all evil, it is rather the only true good.” An amazing statement that I ought to glue right over my overly full diary.
Many of our lives are out of balance. We spend much too much time doing and not nearly enough time being. And changing that is hard – I should know! You have taken an important step by being here. Many of you have said how important it is to you that you come to church to have a time away – a time for yourself.
You are on the right track. It’s a decidedly old track – thousands of years old – called Sabbath. It doesn’t require money or equipment and it’s decidedly low-tech. It simply requires setting aside time without work of any kind. A time to be ourselves in our solitude, with our loved ones, and with the sacredness of the world.
You don’t have to set aside a whole day – but set aside some time. Let everyone know this is your Sabbath time. Once a week, turn off the computer. Turn off the television. Cover up your in-box with a nice tea towel. Turn off the phone and the digital diary – oh – and pull out that sundial!