Well, it’s about time! Probably most of us can easily think of ways that sentiment has punctuated the flow of our lives. In its more lighthearted forms, it might simply mean, “We’re glad you’re here!” In less jovial moments it may reflect varying degrees of annoyance or frustration. As part of a culture that does not like to wait, we might often find ourselves getting impatient with people or things that “waste our time” and, sometimes, with a level of intensity that surprises us! But whether it is in an interaction with a person or with some form of technology, what it actually reflects may be more significant than we realize. So, what is all of that about anyway? Well, it’s about time!
Many of us live with a sense that we somehow need to deal with time better. So we focus on improving time management skills, look for ways to be more efficient, increase productivity, and maybe even schedule in a little down time now and then.
We use technology to get more done more quickly and to keep our calendars and e-mail accounts ever at our finger tips. Yet, we rarely consider that the underlying cause of our hurried lives may not be so much about a failure of management as it is about how we actually experience time in the first place.
Researchers working in the field of Cardiac Psychology have identified three unhealthy “states” (time pathologies) that we can find ourselves in as a result of how we experience time.1 The first is called Time Pressure, which is the perception that there is not enough time to accomplish all that we feel we must do, which then results in anxiety and tension. The second is Time Urgency, which adds to the experience of time pressure, the conviction that we need to speed up the rate at which we are doing things. Whatever it is we are doing (working, eating, speaking, walking, even thinking), we need to do it faster and look for ways to multi-task whenever possible. Furthermore, we continue to feel and act that way even when there are no actual time constraints to prompt or justify it. The third, Hurry Sickness, is the experience of time urgency that has become chronic. Preoccupation with past and future events allows only fleeting attention to the present and then often only in the form of dealing with a crisis or solving a problem. With a focus that is now primarily on numbers and goals, everything is now evaluated in terms of quantity rather than quality. We are probably not surprised to discover that the rushed lifestyle that these time pathologies reflect is not one that leads to optimal cardiac (or mental) health.
Ok, so maybe we need to slow down a bit and, maybe, do a bit less . . . and maybe we do . . . for a while . . . , but it is often not very long before we discover that we have slipped back into the same patterns again. Perhaps this is because our solutions may be addressing the symptoms more than the real underlying issue, which is . . . well . . . it’s about time. Not how we organize or manage it but how we experience it.
If we are willing to listen carefully, the scriptures actually give us some rather helpful insight into our experience of time and how that experience can go wrong for us. Genesis 1, the beginning of our experience of time, provides us with some helpful navigation points, but we often miss these, at least partially because of our tendency to try so hard to hear Genesis 1 as addressing issues that it was probably not terribly concerned about, and as a result, we miss what is actually there. Because our questions about time are often framed in terms of “What is it time for?” — kind of like kids riding in the back seat of the car on the family vacation who keep asking “Are we there yet?” — we get focused on “how long?” questions.
“How long is a day?” “How much time elapsed between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2?” However, when we listen more carefully, appreciating what many find to be the interesting literary, perhaps even poetic, structure of the passage, what Genesis 1 seems to be addressing much more profoundly is not just “What is it time for?” or “How long?” but instead, “What is time for?” That is a very different question and, in terms of how we live, far more significant. Notice what we find when we begin to read with that later question in mind.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.2
We are not given a date to mark on our calendar, but we are given a different kind of time reference point. While it does not tell us exactly when the beginning was, it does tell us how it was at the beginning — that at the beginning of everything is the God who creates everything. And then we are given a powerful image to associate with this — God’s act of creation:
Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.3
As I understand it, the Hebrew imagery evoked in the language used here is that of a mother eagle hovering over her nest as she is preparing to rouse her hatching eaglets to life. It is a very relational, maternal picture of God “giving birth to creation.” It is an image that evokes a sense of how it is with God and God’s creation at the beginning, at the very moment that the experience of time begins for us. This is our first experience in time.
Then, following the literary structure of the passage, we go on to the coming of light on Day 1 and God distinguishing light from the darkness. Then on Days 2 and 3, the great containers of creation take shape: sky above, water below, and dry land. Day 4 returns us to the themes of light and dark from Day 1, establishing a greater light to shine in the day and a lesser light(s) to shine at night. (There is also a note here that these will provide a way to mark the flow of time that proceeds ahead but more about Day 4 later.) On days 5 and 6, God fills the containers created on Days 2 and 3: the sky with birds, the waters with fish, and the land with animals — ultimately culminating with beings created in God’s own image. All of which God declares to be very good!4
Now one would think that this, the creation of human beings in God’s image, which Chapter 2 expands on in more detail, would be the ultimate climax of the creation story! But interestingly enough, the creation story that begins in Genesis 1 does not end at Day 6 but, instead, comes to its climax on Day 7, recorded in the first few verses of Chapter 2:
By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.
The crowning act of the creation story and the experience God imparts to the world that has just been birthed into being is the Sabbath — a gift that is all about how to experience time. Notice that the experience of “Sabbath time” is all about the Creator not being all about creating and then blessing that experience of time and making it special.
While creation certainly had been productive, the experience that celebrates creation was not all about doing or producing. Rather, it was all about relationships — for God to be with God’s creation and for God’s creation to be with each other, just for their own sake. In the very first experience of time that the Book of Genesis opens with, we find very personal and relational imagery being used to describe God bringing our world to life. In the climax to the creation story on Day 7 we find an equally personal and relational experience, the celebration of the Sabbath, an experience of time that is not all about how much we can do or produce, not even for God the Ultimate Producer, but one that is all about being in relationships.
What the creation story in Genesis 1 describes is an experience of time that is rooted less in how long it takes to do things, or how much we can produce, and more in a way of being together in the midst of creation. It is a narrative that speaks much more powerfully to the question of “What is time for?” than “What is it time for?” All of which raises the possibility of whether it is in the answering of that first question that we might find even richer meanings in our understanding of what it means for Sabbath to be a memorial of creation!
With that in mind, when we take another look at Day 4 in the creation story, the one that actually speaks most directly about how we keep track of the passage of time, there is an important perspective that we find embedded there in the text.
Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark seasons and days and years…God made two great lights — the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. God set them in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness.
It is worth noticing that while the passage is clearly referring to the sun and moon, the words for sun and moon are not used. Many scholars suggest that the reason for this is that at the time Genesis was written, those words were also used as proper names for the pagan deities associated with the sun and moon. It appears then, that by the passage intentionally referring to them as simply the greater and lesser lights, it is making it clear that these were things created by God, they were not themselves gods (an idea which would have been quite counter-cultural in a world where their worship was common). According to Genesis 1, these were simply objects that help us mark the passage of time, they were not gods that ruled over how we experienced it. While most of us are probably not tempted to worship the Sun or Moon per se, the important distinction embedded in those verses still speak as a powerful reminder to not allow those things that we look to to mark or measure the passage of time to be given the power to govern our lives or to be “worshiped” as gods. Created things, like the Sun or Moon or other technological devices that measure or manage our time, are there to be helpful in living well, not to become things that we find ourselves serving in ways that drain life from us.
If we could loosen our grip for a moment on our insistence that we read Genesis 1 as if it were a science text (something that the original writers and hearers would probably be somewhat baffled by) and appreciate the possibility that the creation story may be wanting to tell us more about how to live than how to count, then we might discover a richness in the story that Sabbath memorializes but that we have too often missed. In contrast to other creation stories that had emerged in the other religions of that time which reflected a way of experiencing life that was all about keeping demanding gods pleased and appeased, this was the story of a loving, relational Creator who wanted to be with His people and who crafted the experience of time in a way that reflected that. It expresses an experience of time that is not about a rigid, demanding standard that rules us but a relational experience we enter into.
Which is why, in a world that has replaced the gods of sun and moon with clocks, calendars, and production schedules, we are still very much in need of the experience of time that Genesis 1 describes, and that Sabbath memorializes and celebrates, because we have largely lost what it means to experience time that way. Some of the significant contributors to this loss, and how our experience of time has changed, is articulated well in an article by Michael Ventura. Here are a few excerpts:
In the beginning was the railroad — the beginning, that is, of today’s experience of time. In the 1880s, railroad interests pressured the federal government to divide the country into time zones. Before this, 3:00 p.m. in San Francisco did not correspond to any particular time in New York. . . . In fact, 3:00 p.m. in any city was only roughly coordinated even within the city limits. There was no place to call for a central reference point — there weren’t any telephones to call with. . . . Local travel was by foot and horse. . . . People greeted one another and often stopped for conversation. . . . Most people didn’t need to make “appointments.” Schedules were for railroads, not individuals. As the railroads become more and more crucial to all forms of commerce, first factories and, by degrees, everyone else, had to conform to railroad schedules. Time began to be standardized. . . . Farmers had to coordinate their sense of time with the railroads; their produce had to be ready at a certain time in order to get to a certain market. The commercialization of time completed its domination of American life in the 1920s with the advent of radio. Families, whose rhythms had revolved around mealtimes and work, now lived their evenings around their favorite broadcasts.
Thus from 1880 to 1930 there was a fundamental shift. With increasing dependence on the rails for business, and with the radio and telephone unifying the continent through instantaneous communications, the more flexible time of the past became the more rigid time sense we now know.
By 1950 . . . the shift in America had gone from time is life to time is money. . . . We began to measure our work and our value by the hour. Every man and woman in America wakes each day with a price on his or her head.5
With ever increasing technology, and a shifting in our experience of time to conform to the beat of “do better, do more, and by all means, do it faster,” we might not even notice how easily the worship of the old time keepers (Sun & Moon) can get replaced with more modern ones. Maybe that is what real “sun worship” is about, how contemporary “beasts” leave their marks, and one of the ways the experience of Sabbath-based worship is a perpetual sign of the “covenant” and a memorial of creation?
Once we start listening to Genesis 1 as it speaks to the experience of time, many other things that the scripture has to say about time and Sabbath begin to appear in a clearer light. The 4th Commandment’s admonishment to set work aside and suspend all the ways we categorize people as more or less deserving based on work or status can now be seen as much more than just giving us a weekly break or as a test to see if we will do what we are told. It is perhaps, much more about remembering and celebrating what time is for and how we are meant to experience it. The Exodus 20 version reminds us that we do this because God creates the way He does in the creation story of Genesis 1. The Deuteronomy 5 version tells us that we do this because God redeems the way He does as is remembered in the story of the Exodus. In both cases, we celebrate that who we really are is rooted in God’s grace, and we are invited to live in a way that reflects that.
When we are able to fully embrace that, we are able to experience time as Hebrews 4:9 invites us to:
There remains, then, a Sabbath‑rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest.
It is also what we see reflected in the ministry of Jesus, when the Pharisees with an eye on clocks and calendars (focused on “What is it time for?” questions) tell Jesus that His disciples should not be picking grain and that He should not be healing on Sabbath. Jesus responds by changing the question to “What is this Sabbath time for?”, reminding them that Sabbath is made for people, not people for the Sabbath.6
When the disciples come to Jesus with “What is it time for?” questions7 about last day events, He reminds them that only the Father knows the day and hour,8 and then he leads them to consider a different kind of question, “What is time for?”, as He tells them stories about how to use their time — the wise and foolish young women, those with talents to invest, and the sheep and the goats.9
And to people who are very concerned about last day events and the seeming delay of the Second Coming, who were asking, “What is it time for?” and “Why isn’t it time yet?” questions, Peter writes this in 2 Peter 3:8-9:
…do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
Whether we experience time primarily in ways that are all about numbers, deadlines, and productivity, or instead about relationships, love and grace, matters. What is reflected in the way God creates in Genesis 1, and what we celebrate in the Sabbath, matters. It changes how we experience time, guiding us into framing the question in a more helpful way, one that is less “What is it time for?” and more “What is time for?” When we are listening well, the creation story speaks as powerfully to our contemporary world today as it did to the ancient world in which it was first told and heard.10
I wonder what it might mean for us if we began to see that experience of life as a part of God’s kingdom as being what is central to the creation story and what Sabbath celebrates and seals us into? What if we were to ease up on our efforts to make the story speak the language of biology or geology and let it speak with its own voice about theology and our spiritual journey? What if it was so much more than knowing how to read a calendar correctly, as important as that may be and continues to be, and more about how we live and experience time? Something to think about! Because when it comes to fully embracing and experiencing the life of the Kingdom and to fully embracing the beauty of what the Sabbath celebrates, a lot of what we struggle with is . . . well. . . . It’s about time.
Notes & References:
1For a fuller discussion of Time Pathologies, see the chapter titled “Treatment of Time Pathologies” by Diane Ulmer and Leonard Schwartzburd, in Heart & Mind: The Practice of Cardiac Psychology, edited by Robert Allan and Stephen Scheidt — a publication of the American Psychological Association, in 1996. L. Paul Jensen also discusses this in Subversive Spirituality: Transforming Mission Through the Collapse of Space and Time, Pickwick Publications, 2009, on pages 62-69.
4It is difficult for me to read these verses without thinking about C.S. Lewis’ imagery of Aslan singing the world into existence. See C.S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew, (New York: Harper Collins Books, 1955), 116-138.
5Michael Ventura, “The Age of Interruption,” an article published in the January/February 1995 issue of The Family Networker. You can find a copy of the full article (which is well worth reading) here: http://michaelventura.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/THE-AGE-OF-INTERRUPTION-January-February-1995.pdf
6See Mark 3
10For a thoughtful discussion of how we might go about listening more carefully to Genesis 1 in its own context, and in the context of conversations about the relationship of science to the text, see Brian Bull and Fritz Guy’s book God, Sky & Land: Genesis 1 as the Ancient Hebrews Heard It, published by Adventist Forum in 2011.
Ken Curtis is Associate Pastor at Calimesa SDA church and blogs at KensFootnotes.
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash.
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