Listen to this sermon:
My son, Amos, has a train to catch this afternoon.
He will be heading back to college in Chicago, and his train leaves Union Station in Springfield this afternoon at 3:26pm. This information presents two concerns for me. The first, obvious, concern, is to make sure he leaves home with sufficient time to get to the station to meet the train before it departs. The second concern is for me in particular. I ask myself if I can go with Cary on the trip to see him off. I want to, but I’m not sure I can “afford” the time, since today is “sermon day” and I don’t want to be up till all hours getting my sermon written.
At 1:39PM we leave the house — that should give us plenty of time. Late January, we are having a cold snap, and the snow piled on the side of the road is a solid jagged crust. The cleared roads have the hard weathered gray quality they take on after the plows have come by and left behind a layer of salt that has then gotten ground in by the passing cars. In the distance, the snow is visible through the trees, and it is possible to see, with more clarity than usual, the way the hills rise and fall against the horizon.
Amos is the last to leave. After he is gone, it will be just Cary and I and the four legged creatures again. Both Cary and I have mixed feelings about letting the young man out of our sight, but the tickets are in hand, the tuition paid, and his classes begin on Monday, so, for better or for worse, we are zipping down the highway under a frowning sky.
Recently I have been giving a lot of thought to the nature of time. The calculation that I described a moment ago is a common one that I often make in my life — I allocate enough of a chunk of time to ensure that I arrive at a specific destination at a desired moment in time. This is a simple calculation – one that you and I do everyday. All you need is the knowledge of how long it takes to get to the desired place, and the rudimentary math necessary to subtract that amount of time from the desired time of arrival. Those of us who have been around the block a few times know enough to add some time just in case you hit traffic. This is all very familiar to us. Normal everyday stuff…
But I think it is just this normal everyday-ness of the way we think about time that is giving me trouble. If we were fish, time would be our ocean. We don’t know anything other than our existence within it. We move through it. We break it into pieces, so that we can manage it. We experience it.
But what do we really know about it?
Saint Augustine of Hippo famously complained about the futility of trying to figure out the nature of time:
What then is time? he wrote. If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I want to explain it to someone, I do not know what it is.
I suspect that part of Saint Augustine’s trouble may have been that he was trying to explain the nature of time in a pre-scientific age – in a moment in history, that is, when the only language available to talk about such things was the language of religion.
Today we have the luxury of having many ways to talk about time. I used to joke with my best friend in college, that his study of physics, and my study of religion were concerned with the same mystery, we were just using different tools to approach it. Since I can (thankfully!) leave the math to the physicists, I don’t need to tell you what time actually is. I am free to speculate about time using the unapologetically imprecise and subjective language of scripture and narrative.
The language of scripture and narrative may be unapologetically imprecise and completely subjective, but, I argue that it is no less capable of stumbling upon truth about the big questions like the nature of time.
I might go so far as to say that the imprecise and subjective truth about time that we gather from religion might have greater relevance to our lives as human beings, than the precise, objective conclusions that can be derived from physics. Why did we ask the question in the first place? Did we ask just because we were curious and have an urge to know – or was it because our souls–the most essential part of ourselves – yearns, calls out, for an answer?
There is, as you may have figured out, a lot more at stake in this question about time than whether or not Amos will make it to his train on time.
When I say that Amos is the last to leave, I am not just stating a practical fact. Though it is factually true, it is not the fact, but the narrative behind it, that gives the statement sentimental depth.
We had a full house this Christmas. At the height of the insanity, our family unit of 5 (Cary and I, the two boys, and Isabel) were joined by Harriet and Jean Dedieu, Harriet’s Personal Care Attendant, as well as two of Isabel’s childhood friends, Julianna and Lukas. Add 7 cats and a dog and we had 16 beating hearts under this roof. We fit everyone, but barely.
The guest of honor was Harriet, my dear friend, who has been a partner in all of the Racial Justice work that I have done with the Sacred Ally Quilt Ministry and the New Hampshire Conference of the United Church of Christ. Harriet had arrived in an ambulance on December 23rd, and been carefully placed in a hospital bed that had been set up in my living room. The idea was that Harriet would spend the last days of her life here, in my house, with my family.
I knew that she was going to die, and I did not want her to die alone.
I wanted to give her that last gift – a warm place, among loved ones, where she could at least have a chance to die in peace.
Christmas came. We exchanged presents and had a big meal. The next day, Jean, Harriet’s PCA arrived and set himself up in the guest room. Every few hours Jean and I would shift Harriet in her bed to keep her comfortable, and reduce the likelihood of bed sores. We established a rhythm of pain medication. Each day a different friend or group of friends came to visit with Harriet. Estranged family came to make their peace.
The days became weeks. Harriet’s suffering intensified so, at her request, we increased the frequency of her pain medication. When she was not snowed in by painkillers her mind was still as keen as ever. She said that she was happy. But each night, when I went to bed, I wondered if I would see her the next morning.
For God alone my soul waits in silence,
begins Psalm 62.
for my hope is from God..
About halfway to Springfield, the highway pushes through some hills that rise up on either side. Here we pass houses, crouched on the hillside, descending into the valley, all sad clapboard and asphalt siding. Smoke rising from cinderblock chimneys. Driveways imperfectly plowed. Everywhere, ice, mounds of snow, black trees stark against the snow.
Amos will not miss the train. We take comfort in what appears to us to be the steadiness of the way time passes – we imagine it like a line that we are moving along that progresses from the future into present and then into past. We have plenty of time to spare. We tell ourselves that we know how to move through time, and on this occasion, at least, time lets us have our way.
Harriet died in the afternoon. For the two days prior, she had spent progressively less time aware of the world. Her breathing became more labored, so we called the Hospice nurse, who recommended that we try a certain medication that we had on hand. This helped calm things down a little bit, but then we saw that her breathing, though less labored, was also less steady. Soon, her breathing stopped altogether.
“I think she’s gone.” I said.
The apostle Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, writes:
brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short;
Paul senses that the meaning of time has shifted. Time is no longer “everyday” time. Time is now filled with the presence of God, and from this presence all of our “everyday-ness” – our feelings, our possessions, all our dealings with this world, fades away, for, Paul concludes: … the present form of this world is passing away.
We live lives in which we meet trains at the appointed time.
But this life is not the real life. In reality, our lives are fleeting moments in eternity.
It’s not a one dimensional line that we move along, from the past, through the present into the future…
This view is our small way of coping with time.
Time is eternity, which, I think, is like an ocean. We are like dolphins. We jump out of eternity for an instant, take a breath, and then return to eternity.
My faith tells me that the ocean of eternity is God, and that this momentary expression that is our life, is an expression of what is good. If the movement from eternity is good, than so to, the return to eternity is also good.
Birth is good. Life is good. Death is good.
Because it is all an expression of eternity,
and eternity is good.
That is my faith.