“You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep” (Romans 13:11).
This beginning assumes that I know so much more than I do! For me, it only generates more questions: How would I know what time it is? Do you mean, I should look at the clock and make sure I stop talking before 12 o’clock? What do you mean by “now?” “Now” when you wrote it? “Now” when I am reading it today? Or when I read it yesterday? When is now? Augustine, in the fourth century, wrote, “What is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I wish to explain, I do not know. … My soul yearns to know this most entangled enigma.” Time is relative, and flexible and, according to Einstein, “the dividing line between past, present, and future is an illusion.”
Einstein’s quandary was described by Rudolf Carnap:
Einstein said the problem of the Now worried him seriously. He explained that the experience of the Now means something special for a person, something essentially different from the past and the future, but that this important difference does not and cannot occur within physics. That this experience cannot be grasped by science seemed to him a matter of painful but inevitable resignation. So he concluded “that there is something essential about the Now which is just outside the realm of science.” (quoted in Now — And The Physics Of Time, by Richard A. Muller, http://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2016/09/27/495608371/now-and-the-physics-of-time)
Of course it is outside the realm of science. “Now” is the realm of the spiritual, of the deeply and truly present. Or, maybe it will make sense to say that Now is the realm of love. Love is timeless, or plays tricks with time, causing it to fly or creep, but in the presence of the Beloved, time stops. This is not a thing of science. It is presence, not time.
This summer, one of my lessons in Native American Spirituality was about “Indian time.” I have always heard this phrase as a disparaging remark, but not in this author’s view. Listen to what Evan Pritchard has to say: There is no word for time in .. most Algonquin tongues. You can’t say it. You can ask… “When is it?” but your answer may be expressed in images, not numbers…. The way time is dealt with in Algonquin speech teaches us that time is relative and elusive, . . . There is no concept of time outside its embodiments in the things of nature. I’ve heard Micmac people point to the sky and use the expression, “Where is it now?” meaning, “What is the position of the sun?” I’ve even agreed to an appointment to meet an elder when the sun sits “there above the trees” but no mention of hours. The myth that some people are on Indian Time is no myth. We all come into this world on Indian Time and depart from it the same way. It’s just that some native people seem to be able to maintain that natural rhythm during the interceding period called ‘life’ as well.” (Evan T. Pritchard in No Word for Time).
Reflecting on this concept of time, I realized that one of the gifts of my sabbatical was to be able to live on “Indian time.” How would I describe that? It was to live in the moment. There was no schedule – except the occasional campground check-out time. I could go for a walk, read, write, or just sit and look out at the world – and there was nothing asking me to do otherwise – not from within me, nor outside of me. No worry, no guilt. Just presence. Back to that word: Presence.
Indian time centers around presence rather than time. In the western eras of exploration and then industrialization, we have developed a valuing of productivity. We even have the Christian productivity value in the Protestant work ethic, in which we measure a person’s worth in God’s sight by how industrious they are. And how do we measure that? By how many hours they work, how much wealth they generate, how many widgets they produce per hour, or how much territory they possess. Time-clocks are how we measure a person’s worth. We live in a productivity culture. And for that reason, we produce to excess, we build bigger and bigger houses for no purpose, we have gadgets for everything.
Indian time, instead, values presence. Slow is important. Space, plenty of it. Quiet between sentences. Silence is golden. No hurry. Showy productivity is not valued. One cannot be mobile if one has too much stuff. One cannot live lightly and friendly upon the land if one uses it wastefully. Presence. With each other as human beings, with animals, earth, herbs, trees, rocks and water. We are all part of the same circle of life.
The gift of sabbatical was to live on Indian Time. The challenge of returning from sabbatical was to continue to live on Indian Time. Would I be able to live my life present to what the current moment holds, or would I return to being a step removed from presence by hurry, schedule, or just taking on too much?
I am painting the contrast more starkly than it is lived, I know. But the contrast has helped me to see something. That when I talk about hope – the theme for the first week of Advent – it has always had an orientation toward the future. Hope is a time thing. We hope for something which may come in the future. And particularly, when we talk about salvation. That is something almost always referred to the future.
But what if salvation is a presence thing, rather than a time thing? This very idea was suggested to me by this passage from Romans. Paul does not put hope in a future context, but a presence context: Salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers. “Nearer” is a word of proximity first. “Nearer” is a word about space, a word about presence, more than it is about time.
Salvation is closer to us now than when we first believed. We have learned, step by step in the journey with Jesus, to recognize the face of Jesus around us everywhere, in any moment, and in any person. The presence of love – God, Jesus, Spirit – is not bound by time, but by presence.
The fact is that Paul had an overwhelming sense for the presence of Christ no matter how relatively near or far off Christ’s return may be. His letters are scattered with references to living in Christ-like ways on account of our being able to see the kingdom and sense the nearness of our Lord at all times. You should not need some tidbit of knowledge that Christ is coming back next week to finally straighten up and be a good disciple. Indeed, if your only reason to behave as a child of the light is because you think the master is coming back to check up on you and declare a final verdict on you next month or something, then you are missing what it means to live as a temple of the Holy Spirit already now, to be the hands and feet of Jesus.
And so we come to this season’s theological word:, “incarnation,” when God takes on human flesh and walks among us humans. Looking back, this was obvious in the baby Jesus. And, yet, the incarnation is so much more than this! It is God becoming present in our world, for us to see, touch, hear. Did incarnation happen before Jesus? I wonder what Moses would say? Did incarnation end when Jesus returned to heaven? Paul would argue with you on that one! So would St. Francis! Is our hope now for the incarnate one to return to earth where we can see him someday in the future? Only in part. Naturally, we yearn for God to be incarnate among us once again. But much of that happens when we let ourselves be the hands and feet of Jesus now, in our daily presence.
It should be clear, but often isn’t, that the way of Jesus is not so much about the chronological story. This little bit from Romans leads me to believe that Paul knew this. The way of Jesus is always now. So, had Paul been a friend of Moses,’ in ancient Egypt, he would have said these exact same words to his Hebrew cohorts, “It is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.” The Old Testament prophets, like the reading from Isaiah, move back and forth in time. “The days are coming, … so let us walk in the light of the Lord!” Another way of saying, “Wake up!” One theological theme of the Pharisees was that if all Israel could keep the law perfectly for one whole day, the kingdom of God would come. I used to think that was foolish, but now I am not so sure. If we all lived the way of Jesus, or kept the law of love perfectly at any particular moment, that would be the kingdom of God, indeed! And isn’t it the kingdom of God whenever brothers and sisters come together in unity?
Incarnation is not about time, but about presence. So there is reason for hope. Every day we live in the joyful expectation of the appearance of God among us. Every day! Now is the time to wake from sleep. Now is the time to open our eyes and look around. Now is the time to rouse from the way our culture can hypnotize us, with its constant movement and noise. The time is now, to live in hope, to live in such a way as to bring incarnation in big or small ways – to see divine light, to feel divine love, to be held in divine protection.
So how could we live in hope this week? How could we shift from time to presence? Here are a few things you could try (I tried these all during sabbatical to my great delight, but not always by choice): Don’t wear a watch for a day or a week. Try not carrying your cell phone for a day. Decide not to drive at all one day or week, but walk wherever you go. Turn off your TV, radio or any other media for a day, a week, why not the whole four weeks of Advent!
Imagine the way you might experience the presence of God in the people you love, in the rays of sunshine coming through the clouds, in the smell of evergreens and cinnamon, in the sounds of wind and wild things, in the taste of hot cocoa on a cold night. Imagine them as the love of God which has become incarnate just for you. That is what all these gifts are. Imagine! That is the practice of hope.
May we practice hope this week, as we make more real in our lives the presence of God.