MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
March 23, 2014
1Lord, you have been our dwelling-place*
in all generations.
2Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
3You turn us* back to dust,
and say, ‘Turn back, you mortals.’
4For a thousand years in your sight
are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night.
5You sweep them away; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning;
6in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.
10The days of our life are seventy years,
or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
even then their span* is only toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.
12So teach us to count our days
that we may gain a wise heart.
17Let the favour of the Lord our God be upon us,
and prosper for us the work of our hands—
O prosper the work of our hands!
It has been suggested that our checkbooks are theological documents, reflecting our faith and our priorities. If that is true, then our calendars are at least as revealing. How we spend our time—indeed, how we view time—has profound spiritual implications for us who worship a God who is a “dwelling place for all generations” (Psalm 90:1).
The issue of time touches us all, regardless of life circumstance. Consider the working couple, struggling to find time for one another in the midst of dual careers. Or the mother who spends frazzled days carpooling her children from activity to activity, all the while lamenting the lack of family time. She says, “We never eat dinner together anymore.” Or consider the executive facing retirement and wondering how best to spend his jubilee years—should he throw himself into meaningful volunteer work, or has he “earned the right” to travel and enjoy himself? Consider also the woman who is actively discerning “God’s plan for her life”—at age 83. And consider church workers, elders and deacons, who seek to minister to the chronically busy and the stressed out—and who might be chronically busy and stressed out themselves.
We often feel enslaved by time, crippled by a feeling that there’s never quite enough time. Yet, we seek to follow a God who is outside time. How do we reconcile these two realities?
Psalm 90 is one of our reminders of this God who exists outside time: “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God” (v. 2). Genesis 1 suggests that our way of measuring time didn’t even exist until God created it—light and dark, days and nights, the earth turning on its axis and journeying around the sun. That’s how we understand time, and before creation there was only God and a formless void—no deadlines, no late fees, no busyness! Our own Westminster Confession of Faith describes God as “infinite… immutable… eternal… most absolute.” These are good sturdy words we hold onto in the hectic chaos of our lives.
This image of God may inspire awe and even comfort, but it doesn’t provide much practical advice for the living of our days. The psalmist asks God, “Teach us to count our days,” but what does that mean? Too many of us reach the end of each day feeling guilty about so much left undone.
When we were first married, Robert and I went camping in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. After a particularly challenging day of hiking I remember coming back to the campsite with three simultaneous overwhelming needs: a hearty meal, a good shower, and a long nap. Each one felt absolutely urgent; for a long moment I felt paralyzed, unable to choose any one, since choosing one would mean postponing the other two things that felt just as essential!
My experience in the Rockies is a parable, I believe, for how many of us live. We live strenuous lives, hiking to the very edge of what our bodies and spirits can stand. As one mother I know puts it, “There is no buffer. Our lives work smoothly, until someone gets sick, or the dishwasher breaks, and then everything goes nuts.” There’s no space to absorb the unexpected.
Many of us, regardless of the roles we juggle, find it difficult to “count our days… [with] a wise heart.” Even when everything is going well, it is challenging to assess what is the next right thing. If we tend to one area of our life, the other areas must wait patiently, or not.
In desperation, or when feeling overwhelmed, many of us turn to time management resources—books and articles that encourage us to identify those things that are inessential time-wasters and let them go. The thinking is, if harried folks would simply be more selective about what fills their time, they would find more than enough time for the things that they truly need to do—those things that give their lives joy and purpose.
As a pastor in this high-energy, time-starved community of Northern Virginia—among people who find joy and purpose in many things—I find this advice simplistic and unhelpful. Many of us have already separated the wheat from the chaff on our calendars. We are not people whose time issues would be solved by tearing ourselves away from mindless hours in front of the television, for example. Most people I know are perpetually trying to decide between two good and nourishing options for their time, or worse, decide among twenty good options: time with family, meaningful work, home projects, personal exercise, individual spiritual practices, volunteer work at the church, civic engagement, time to get to know neighbors, play and leisure—and the list goes on and on.
The old video game “The Sims” is a perfect example of this. The object of the game was to manage the lives of a person or persons—you design their home, choose a career, pursue hobbies, and so on. I only played a few times and it seemed to me that it was possible to keep the Sims character clothed and fed and the house clean and have the character go to work each day—but in order to be successful you also needed to have a social life, maybe read a book or play a musical instrument, and if you didn’t do those things consistently, there was a quality of life graph that slowly got lower and lower…
I never enjoyed this game; it was too much like life!
In fact, I wonder what your quality of life graph looks like today.
The ability to be discerning with our time is perhaps one of the foundational struggles of being human. Psalm 90 makes it plain: “The days are soon gone, and we fly away” (v. 10). I remember reading this passage at a memorial service for a beloved member of the church I was serving at the time, named Rose. When I got to the verse, “The days of our life are seventy or eighty,” I wanted to slam the book shut.
Rose was 57. The same age as my father when he died.
Tucked within this passage about God as our dwelling place was a slap in the face, reminding us that our time is short, and we simply do not know how much time we have.
“The days are soon gone, and we fly away.”
The traditional answer in the church, when faced with fears over scarcity, is to cling to the language of abundance—the idea that there is always enough, not necessarily for what we want, but for what we need. The logical conclusion of that is that if we find ourselves with something left undone, then it just didn’t need doing anyway. We use the story of manna in the wilderness as evidence: “See how God provided for the people, not too much, but just enough!”
The church is big on this kind of language. And for some people and in some situations, it works.
For me, it doesn’t. Especially when we’re talking about time.
I myself have come to reject the concept of time abundance; because if God truly provides enough, even abundant, time, then we are doomed to a life of anxiety, always chasing after the exact perfect balance of activities to fill our days. If God provides enough time for the important things in our lives, and we don’t get them done, then we've failed to solve the puzzle, to find The Right Answer.
I reject this line of thinking.
I have found it much more liberating spiritually to say, “There isn’t ever enough time. Even when we strip away all the inessentials—even when we focus just on the things that are good and nourishing and important for ourselves, our families and the world—there is still not enough time. But our hope is not in there being enough time, but in there being enough grace.” Time scarcity demands that we be creative. There isn’t enough time. So how do we move as creatively through our days as we can?
I want to share one of my spiritual practices with you that helps me think about time differently—that helps me “count my days.” Rather than looking at an unfinished task and seeing something I’ve failed to do, I see instead what that unfinished task represents: namely, something else that’s important that I have done:
For example, when I look at a stack of unread newspapers, I see the article I wrote or the pastoral visits I made.
When I look at my long list of emails still waiting to be answered, I see the trip to Baskin-Robbins with the kids.
When I look at a pile of unsorted and unfolded laundry, I see the delightful novel that I read with my feet up the night before!
There are other ways to learn how to move creatively through our days:
…We do it through prayer: God, help me to know the next right thing.
…through Sabbath time, even half a day a week, which allows us to take a step back and remember that the world turns on its axis just fine without us;
…and through each other—we need to hold each other accountable in this time-starved culture.
“If only there were more hours in the day,” we often sigh. It is a sort of prayer. And yet God answers the prayer not with more time, but with God’s own self. “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,” the psalmist writes, “so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days” (v. 14). And we know that God does.
And that’s the key to making time scarcity your friend. It is God’s steadfast love that keeps us from falling into despair over the unfinished work, the loved one we disappointed, another day gone by without completing the important task. When we reach the end of our lives, what will be the greater comfort: to say, “Yes! I got it all done,” or to say, “God’s grace held me up even when I had to let important things go.”
The earliest name for God, according to the Talmud, is ha-makom, which means “the place.” God is our dwelling place, our refuge. In the midst of our anxieties about time, God is steadfast. While we strive to be mindful with the time that we have, we know it is God, and only God, who can satisfy us, who can teach us to be wise with our time and gentle with ourselves when we miss the mark, and who can “prosper the work of our hands.”
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©2014 MaryAnn McKibben Dana. These sermon manuscripts are provided here for personal use, and are not to be redistributed or otherwise reproduced without permission of the author.