Coffee Beans & A Contrast to the Realm of Eternity
The framework of seven days is rich with divine intention. Certainly, in biblical numerology, the number seven symbolizes divine perfection. But perhaps it goes deeper than that. Echoing church father Basil of Caesarea, theologian Colin Gunton argues that the ordering of seven days establishes a distinct relation between the present time and eternity.
That is, the seven-day week was created by God to serve as a contrast to the realm of eternity in which God dwells. Time serves as a contrast to eternity. Have you ever walked into a perfume store at the mall and encountered an array of overwhelming scents simultaneously?
Somewhere, you will also see a small cup of coffee beans sitting nearby. What are the coffee beans for? Coffee beans clear the palate so one can distinguish and fully appreciate the nuanced characteristics of each perfume separately, rather than being bombarded by the many scents at once. In a way, time serves as a cup of coffee beans. Time establishes a contrast to eternity, where God dwells.
Crafting the Perfect Christmas
Ann was a working mother in her 30’s, and one of the millions of women who saw the marshmallow castle on the December cover of a popular women’s magazine. Ann confessed, later, that she felt like a “bad mother” unless she made something from the magazines every Christmas. But the marshmallow castle was the Waterloo of her annual battle to be Super Mom at Christmas.
The directions for the castle assured her that it was a “traditional project that would add so much to a festive season,” and would provide the “focal point of your holiday decorating” as well. More than likely, the article also said the castle would be fun for the entire family to construct. Ann tackled it by herself.
The ingredients were advertised as inexpensive, but Ann spent much more than she’d anticipated, and was off to a bad start even as she left the grocery store. The editors also claimed that the project was simple enough for a child to make, but Ann spent ten frustrating hours putting it together.
The hardest part for her was the turrets that surrounded the castle. The directions told her to paste peppermint candies to four vertical cardboard tubes with marshmallow crème. When Ann went to bed, the peppermints were holding fast to the towers, but when she woke up the next morning, they had oozed away from their stately positions. The castle was sagging, the towers looked exactly like naked toilet paper rolls, and the peppermint slugs were disgusting.
Ann’s children wanted only to eat the marshmallows. Ann’s husband took one look at the white glob of goo and declared it the ugliest thing he’d ever seen. “He didn’t even want it in the house,” she said.
The next Christmas, Ann was much more selective with her Christmas energy. “This year I’m going to spend that time with my children,” she said. “That’s what they really want from me, anyway.” (Source: Unplug the Christmas Machine, Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock Staeheli, New York: William Morrow, 1991, pp. 28-29)
The Creation of Artificial Time
We all know our world has sped up to a frenetic pace. We feel it in our bones, not to mention on the freeway. But it hasn’t always been this way.
Let me nerd out on you for a few minutes just to show you how we got here. We’ll talk about the Roman sundial, Saint Benedict, Thomas Edison, your toaster, 1960s sci-fi, 7-Eleven, and, naturally, Steve Jobs.
First, the sundial, aka the original Casio.
As far back as approximately 200 BC,[i] people were complaining about what this “new” technology was doing to society. The Roman playwright Plautus turned anger into poetry:
The gods confound the man who first found out
How to distinguish hours! Confound him, too,
Who in this place set up a sun-dial
To cut and hack my days so wretchedly
Into small portions![ii]
Next time you’re running late, just quote a little Plautus.
The gods confound the man!
Fast-forward to the monks, our well-meaning spiritual ancestors who played a key role in the acceleration of Western society. In the sixth century Saint Benedict organized the monastery around seven times of prayer each day, a superlative idea. By the twelfth century the monks had invented the mechanical clock to rally the monastery to prayer.
But most historians point to 1370 as the turning point in the West’s relationship to time. That year the first public clock tower was erected in Cologne, Germany.[iii] Before that, time was natural. It was linked to the rotation of the earth on its axis and the four seasons. You went to bed with the moon and got up with the sun. Days were long and busy in summer, short and slow in winter. There was a rhythm to the day and even the year. Life was “dominated by agrarian rhythms, free of haste, careless of exactitude, unconcerned by productivity,”[iv] in the words of the French medievalist Jacques Le Goff. (And yes, I just quoted a French medievalist.)
But the clock changed all that: it created artificial time—the slog of the nine-to-five all year long. We stopped listening to our bodies and started rising when our alarms droned their oppressive siren—not when our bodies were done resting. We became more efficient, yes, but also more machine, less human being.
Listen to one historian’s summary of this key moment:
Here was man’s declaration of independence from the sun, new proof of his mastery over himself and his surroundings. Only later would it be revealed that he had accomplished this mastery by putting himself under the dominion of a machine with imperious demands all its own.[v]
When the sun set our rhythms of work and rest, it did so under the control of God; but the clock is under the control of the employer, a far more demanding master.
Then in 1879 you had Edison and the light bulb, which made it possible to stay up past sunset. Okay, brace yourself for this next stat: before Edison the average person slept eleven hours a night.[vi]
I used to read biographies of great men and women from history who got up to pray at four o’clock in the morning—Saint Teresa of Ávila, John Wesley, Charles Spurgeon. I would think, Wow, they are way more serious about Jesus than I am. True, but then I realized that they went to bed at seven o’clock! After nine hours of sleep, what else was there to do?
Now, at least in America, we’re down to about seven as the median number of hours of sleep per night. That’s two and a half hours less sleep than just a century ago.
Is it any wonder we’re exhausted all the time?
Adapted from The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry: How to Stay Emotionally Healthy and Spiritually Alive in the Chaos of the Modern World. Copyright © 2019 by John Mark Comer. Used by permission of WaterBrook, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
[i] Encyclopaedia Britannica estimates that the first sundial used by the Romans was set up in 290 BC, with one designed for the city being built in approximately 164 BC; www.britannica.com/technology/sundial.
[iii] Carl Honore, In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), 22.
[v] Daniel J. Boorstin, The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search to Know His World and Himself (New York: Vintage Books, 1983), 39.
[vi] Arwen Curry, “How Electric Light Changed the Night,” KQED, January 20, 2015, www.kqed.org/science/26331/how-electric-light-changed-the-night.
Different Times Everywhere
William F. Allen, who in 1883 “pulled off a miracle.” What he did was to get not just an entire coast to pull in sync, but an entire nation. In [New Jersey Governor Tom] Kean’s words,
Until high noon on October 18, 1883, every rail line ran on its own time. Every train station set its own clocks by the sun. So when it was noon in New York, it was 11:58 in Trenton and 11:56 in Camden, and so on. Pure chaos. Allen was chosen to sort out this mess, and after eight years he convinced the nation to adopt the time zones that we have today.
The task the church faces is a lot like Allen’s, except we are trying to get people to adopt the time zone of eternity. As my mother, Mabel Boggs Sweet, used to put it, “God’s clock keeps perfect time.”
Infinity & Eternity, the Difference
Infinity is vacant, lonely, endless time, time without God. There will always be tomorrow is a lie. Eternity is time with God. God doesn’t just give us time (time between the resurrection of Jesus and final consummation of Creation); God takes time.
Did you know that the first group of people to use clocks were Christian monks? Monks desired the ability to pray around a rigorous and exact prayer schedule. Benedict of Nursia, the great architect of monastic orders, required his followers to hold seven prayer services at specific times throughout the day. The Cistercians, who rose in prominence about 600 years later, required timeliness and order similar to that of the Benedictines.
Their days were regimented into a sequence of activities, tardiness was considered a sin. Innovation being the mother of invention, it was in fact within the monastery that the first mechanical clocks were developed, directed by the swinging of weights. The Bells in the church tower first sounded the hours to let monks know it was time to pray or move on to their next activity.
Eventually, as David Landes has described it in his book Revolution in Time, a history of timekeeping, “Bells sounded for start of work, meal breaks, end of work, closing of gates, start of market, close of market, assembly, emergencies, council meetings, end of drink service, time for street cleaning, curfew, and so on through an extraordinary variety of special peals in individual towns and cities.”
Stuart Strachan Jr.
Love Equals Time
Following the death of Albert Einstein’s wife, his sister Maja moved in to help with the day to day running of the home. She did this for an astounding fourteen years, which enabled him to continue his inestimable research. In 1950, Maja had a stroke and fell into a coma. From that point on, Einstein spent two hours each afternoon reading out loud to her from the philosophy of Plato. She never demonstrated comprehension of the great philosopher, but he continued on anyway. What was clear however, was that even in her state, she was worth his time.
Stuart R Strachan Jr.
Our Problem with Time
We delude ourselves into believing that if we can just get everything done, if we can only tie up all the loose ends, if we can even once get ahead of the crush, we will prove our worth and establish ourselves in safety. Our problem with time is social, cultural, and economic, to be sure. But it is also a spiritual problem, one that runs right to the core of who we are as human beings. . . . Indeed, these distortions drive us into the arms of a false theology: we come to believe that we, not God, are the masters of time. We come to believe that our worth must be proved by the way we spend our hours and that our ultimate safety depends on our own good management.
It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Thus, an elderly lady of leisure can spend the entire day in writing and dispatching a postcard to her niece at Bognor Regis. An hour will be spent in finding the postcard, another in hunting for spectacles, half-an-hour in a search for the address, an hour and a quarter in composition, and twenty minutes in deciding whether or not to take an umbrella when going to the pillar-box in the next street. The total effort which would occupy a busy man for three minutes all told may in this fashion leave another person prostrate after a day of doubt, anxiety and toil.
The Sacred Day
The Sabbath day is a holy day. Interestingly, the only thing God deems as qadosh, or “holy,” in the creation story is the Sabbath day. The earth, space, land, stars, animals — even people — are not designated as qadosh. The Sabbath day was holy. Heschel speaks of the Sabbath as the “sanctification of time”:
“This is a radical departure from accustomed religious thinking. The mythical mind would expect that, after heaven and earth have been established, God would create a holy place — a holy mountain or a holy spring — whereupon a sanctuary is to be established.
Yet it seems as if to the Bible it is holiness in time, the Sabbath, which comes first.” This holiness of the Sabbath is one of the distinctive marks of Jewish theology, Heschel contends. Again, it is telling that there is no mention of a specific, sacred place in the creation story. There is only a sacred day. While space and location are significant, it is important to note that the exact location of Eden is omitted. Yet we know that the Sabbath day is holy.
Time and Stress
A clock would make a poor bank. No customer would ever be able to deposit a moment to save for later because, at the end of the day, every second would be spent and the clock would be bankrupt. While it’s true that each day gives us twenty-four hours to spend, those hours have to be divided into moments driven by the demands of our to-do lists, not to mention our problems, worries, families, and jobs.
It seems that our minutes evaporate no matter how fast we rush to meet them. The ticking of the clock is one of the reasons why, according to Psychology Today, 39 percent of Americans claimed their stress had increased over the past year. The article continues with unsettling news: “More alarming, only 29 percent reported that they were doing an ‘excellent’ or ‘very good’ job at managing their stress.”
We’ll get up tomorrow with a brand-new set of twenty-four hours, a new day that will give us another chance to catch up, find solutions to our challenges, and—hopefully—calm down. Yet, by the end of tomorrow, many of us will fail to find solutions to our stressors. A recent survey shows that most people hear alarm bells when it comes to money (75%), work (70%), the economy (67%), relationships (58%), family responsibilities (57%), family’s health (53%), personal health (53%), job stability (49%), housing (49%), and personal safety (32%).
If we can’t find a way to quiet these alarms, we could be in for even more stress, which eventually impacts our health. Web MD explains:
If stress happens too often or lasts too long, it can have bad effects. It can be linked to headaches, an upset stomach, back pain, and trouble sleeping. It can weaken your immune system, making it harder to fight off disease. If you already have a health problem, stress may make it worse. It can make you moody, tense, or depressed. Your relationships may suffer, and you may not do well at work or school.
Not only that, but stress contributes to conditions such as fatigue, poor concentration, irritability, a quick temper, obesity, cancer, stroke, heart attack, and even death. Yikes! The thought of the effects of stress is enough to stress out anyone.
Time over Money
An emissary from a learned society came to invite the eminent scientist Louie Agassiz to address its members. Agassiz refused on the grounds that lectures of this sort took up too much time that should be devoted to research and writing. The man persisted, saying that they were prepared to pay handsomely for the talk. “That’s no inducement to me,” Agassiz replied. “I can’t afford to waste my time making money.”
Clifton Fadiman, Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes
What to Do With all Our Free Time
For much of the twentieth century, futurists and other labor experts were predicting ever shorter workweeks. In the mid-1920s, for example, Julian Huxley said that the two-day workweek was “inevitable” because of the simple fact that “the human being can consume only so much and no more.” John Maynard Keynes observed in the early 1930s “when we reach the point when the world produces all the goods that it needs in two days, as it inevitably will … we must turn our attention to the great problem of what to do with our leisure.”
Forty years ago, futurists peering into their crystal balls were still predicting that one of the biggest problems for coming generations would be what to do with their abundant spare time. I remember hearing this prediction often. In 1967, for example, testimony before a Senate subcommittee claimed that by 1985 people could be working just twenty-two hours a week or twenty-seven weeks a year. Exactly when they stopped talking this way I am not sure, but they did stop. No one sits around today trying to figure out how to spend their free time. On the contrary, the topic of conversation is usually how to get some. Virtually everyone I know is time desperate.
What am I Supposed to Do?
The US Golfer George Archer had a relatively successful career on the PGA tour, winning won thirteen tournaments, including the 1969 Masters. As he drew closer to retiring from the sport, he wasn’t exactly sure how to spend his time. One reporter asked what he would do during his retirement. Archer said, “Baseball players quit playing and take up golf. Basketball players quit and take up golf. Football players quit and take up golf. What are we supposed to do when we quit?”
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