A Different Relationship with Time

A little over a decade ago the novelist Alan Lightman penned a national bestseller entitled: Einstein’s Dreams. The book plays with time. Lightman describes a series of imagined dreams. Einstein’s conscious is hard at work by day on the theory of relativity. But by night his subconscious produces a number of different worlds, imagining how time *could* function. In one scenario time moves more slowly the farther you get from the center of the earth, so the wealthy build palaces on top of the highest mountains and keep the poor in the valleys below. In another dream, there is a spot where time stands still. Lovers and parents clinging to their children make pilgrimage to the place, to hold one another through time. Lightman’s novel debuted at the beginning of our recent cultural obsession with Einstein. But I wonder is there something more to the relative appeal of these stories and of the scientist? Do we long for a different relationship with time?

“You know not the day or the hour.” Jesus tells a simple story about wise and foolish bridesmaids. Some come prepared for the wait, others are left out in the dark. Be like the wise bridesmaids, Jesus exhorts his disciples. Keep awake. Except the story Jesus told wasn’t literally about staying awake. All of the bridesmaids fall asleep in the parable. The bridesmaids who make it into the banquet also slept. Wisdom in not about sleeplessness.

We know about sleeplessness in this country. We know about worry. I worried this week how the news of last week’s shooting in a Texas Church would affect our attendance today. Of course we’ll pray for the victims. And I worry that we still won’t be able to address the problem with guns in this country. I worry a lot, but maybe not more than most these days. Left to my own devices, I can descend into worry.

I want to venture, following our readings, wisdom is about being awake, but not about anxiety. You can’t worry your way to wisdom. Wisdom is a different kind of awake-ness. And Wisdom has something to do with how we relate to time.

Jesus’ choice of descriptor for the bridesmaids: “wise” is an important one. Our reading from the book of Wisdom raises the stakes a bit. Wisdom is Sophia, lady Wisdom. Christians have often read this divine description as a way of speaking about the Holy Spirit, one of the reasons some Christians tend to gender the Spirit feminine. For Christians Wisdom “capital W” and the Spirit “capital S” are one. To be wise is to be awake, to be awake is to be Spiritual. These wise bridesmaids have their finger on something. The oil is parabolic. Oil is a metaphor. The distinction between wisdom and foolishness has something to do with spirituality, something to do with preparation, and something to do with time.

“One who rises early to find Wisdom will have no difficulty, for she will be found sitting at the gate.”

In so many ways, Spirituality is made out as a pursuit. We religious officials prescribe specific postures, practices, and prayers. So often people respond: “I don’t have the time.” But the writer of the Book of Wisdom answers. Wisdom, Spirituality, isn’t just for the professionals. Spirituality is for the busy. The Spirit will find you. She will meet you in your path.

Spirituality is not about accumulating hours of prayer for the sake of appearing holy. It isn’t about adding. Spirituality is about deepening. Often that deepening comes by subtracting. Spirituality is being awake to God’s presence in every moment. Wisdom is found when we are fully awake, fully present. We don’t find God in all those hours we don’t have in a day. God finds us in the moments we do have.

One of the great teachers of mysticism in the Anglican tradition was an English lay woman, Evelyn Underhill. Her books on Mysticism became best sellers in the years spanning the First and Second World Wars. Underhill was a pacifist, an active Anglican lay leader, and most importantly, a mystic. She argued that mysticism, contemplation, the life of prayer, isn’t just for monks and nuns. Spirituality is for practical people. Learning to be awake, learning to truly see, are the outcomes of the Spiritual life. Listen to Underhill describe the work of contemplative prayer as “looking with the eyes of love:”

To “look with the eyes of love” seems a vague and sentimental recommendation: yet the whole art of spiritual communion is summed in it, and exact and important results flow from this exercise…When you look thus, you surrender your I-hood; see things at last as the artist does, for their sake, not for your own…The doors of perception are cleansed, and everything appears as it is. The disfiguring results of hate, rivalry, prejudice, vanish away. Into that silent place to which recollection has brought you, new music, new colour, new light, are poured from the outward world.

Prayer, Contemplation, Spirituality are practical. They are about being awake, truly awake, deeply awake. Wisdom comes in the moment we are consciously in time, when we are able to “look with the eyes of love.” Such gaze takes practice. But the practices of Spirituality are not “busy work.” We don’t pray just to pass the time. Prayerful practice is about cultivating the “loving gaze” to use Underhill’s word. Spirituality is about learning to be more and more deeply awake in the midst of time.

As Underhill hints awake-ness has another dimension, beyond the personal. I want to return to the Gospel and play for a moment with the wise bridesmaids. I want to ask, what is spiritual about their seemingly small decision to bring the extra oil? Why does this small act matter? To dig in, we have to talk for a moment about first century weddings.

The definition of marriage has shifted a great deal in the last two millennia, thank God. But in the time of Jesus, brides were usually purchased. Women were the property of men. Wedding parties were elaborate multi-day festivities, but they began with a negotiation. Before the feast, before the bridegroom processed to the banquet hall, there was bargaining to be done. The price for the bride needed to be set.

Scholars tell us that the parable’s “bridesmaids” were most likely members of the bridegroom’s family. They would have waited outside until the deal was settled to follow their relative into the banquet and greet his new wife. Knowing this background, the wise bridesmaid interaction gets a little deeper. These particular women know their kinsman. They know him well enough to think through the evening’s likely events: “With this guy we might want to have some extra midnight oil. He’s apt to offer too low a price and this negotiation might drag on. Better bring the backup.” (This reading might also explain why the jerk won’t let the other women into the banquet later.)

The wise bridesmaids have not simply prepared ahead, they’ve thought about their context. They’ve contemplated the likely scenario. These women are awake in a specific way to their time. They are conscious of the economic, gender, and power dynamics in their society, and in their own family.

As an aside, if all of this discussion about first century chattel marriage makes your skin crawl, if the idea that a young woman might be bought and purchased by an adult man makes you uncomfortable, you might not want to move to Alabama.

The Alabama State Auditor this week tried to defend Senate Candidate Roy Moore (noted for his zealous opposition to marriage equality for same sex couples). Moore has been accused of sexual assault on a minor. When the alleged events happened, the candidate was in his thirties and the girl was 14. The State Auditor, coming to Moore’s defense, tried to point to the Bible and say, “well Joseph was an adult and Mary, [the mother of Jesus] was a teen.” Speaking just for this church, let me say, “No.” You don’t get to use the Bible to justify abuse of a minor. Religion should never justify abuse. This seems pretty basic. His misuse of the Bible should be condemned from pulpits across Alabama today. It should be.

Our definition of marriage has shifted from the first century. As I said before, thank God. Yet in this parable, even in the midst of his particular time, Jesus seems to be advocating a specific kind of awareness. Jesus was woke. Jesus encouraged his followers to develop cultivated consciousness toward the dynamics of economics, gender, and power. Here in our day, in our city, we would add race, class, immigration status, ability sexual orientation…

Woke-ness is important for Spiritual folks who live in the bounds of time. The Islamic Scholar Omid Safi quoted Dr. Martin Luther King in an article published about this time last year. He reminded his readers that Dr. King once said “Time is morally neutral.” Safi then elaborated:

Time is morally neutral…Things do not get better by themselves. They also do not get worse by themselves. That’s true whether we are talking about a society bending the arc of the moral universe towards the good and the just, or sliding towards an abyss of authoritarianism.

Time marches on, says Safi, and we have to choose whether we are along for the ride or working to change direction. Time does not heal all wounds, not on its own. Time does not always mean progress, just as age does not always equal wisdom. Awake-ness matters if we seek to make change in our time. If we move from a place of ignorance, if we do not listen deeply to the voices of those who are marginalized, we risk bending the wrong way. We risk making life worse for those who suffer.

Fortunately the levers of power are never solely in our hands. Those words are difficult for folks like us here at Holy Communion. I know that many of you, like me, like to be in charge, like to feel in control. In that sense, time is a great reckoner. We can’t manage the flow of time. Time marches on. We can really only control our own attitude and attention, and even in that realm, we’re working with subtle nuance. A spiritual director of mine once shared a parable he heard from a Navajo friend: “White people have all the watches, but Indians have all the time.”

Jesus’ followers encounter the conundrum of time in a particular way. His earliest followers were waiting for an imminent return. Jesus was coming back, soon. But as the days turned to years, the years to centuries, Jesus’ followers have had to ask: “What are we to do with all of this time?”

How can we use our time intentionally? How can we become more attuned to the Spirit as she is living and active? How can we, like Evelyn Underhill, cultivate an inner life that allows us to more fully see the outer world? How do we stay awake to the dynamics of power inviting us to act for justice?

If for you, time seems fleeting, if you find yourself rushed by errands, trying to find oil for your lamp, could Jesus today be inviting you to find a new relationship with time?

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