June 9, 2014
Everything worth saying is obvious, but we all occasionally need to be reminded of what we already know. St. Paul is always doing this in his letters—reminding his readers of what they already knew. In the midst of a discussion of how to lead an appropriately Christ-like life in the midst of a pagan world, St. Paul, the Christian rabbi, reminds the members the Christian synagogue in Ephesus of what they already knew. You may well feel out of place in this time and place, but the Lord has a purpose in putting you where you are. You are the seed of his New Creation. Therefore, “be careful how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.”
“The days are evil,” Paul wrote almost two millennia ago, and they still undoubtedly are—but no more evil than ever. My wife and I go to a gym where a certain conservative television “news” network plays continually—I doubt that I need to tell you which one. So I also don’t need to tell you that after I have sweated for an hour on a treadmill with that for background noise I am pretty d— sick of contrarian bitching. Now I would do anything before I would deprive anyone of his or her constitutional right to listen to that ear wash. I do my best to tune it out for sake of freedom of speech. But it ain’t easy, heaven knows. I have even tried thinking about my sins, and not even that works very well. Now, beloved, I don’t know how much you relish listening to a bunch of heads talking about how fast and far things have fallen since the good old days. Many of the people who do seem to think of themselves as hot-shot Christians. If you are one of them, knock yourself out. But it is worth reminding ourselves that for followers of Jesus there never were any good old days. They always have been bad.
They haven’t gotten any better of late, I’ll grant you that. The actual news is a litany of on-going disasters—the latest outrages of religious radicalism and sectarian warfare, the latest violence perpetrated against the innocent with constitutionally protected firearms, the latest crimes against good taste and public decency, the latest evidences of catastrophic climate change—over and over, endlessly repeated. It would be easy for any of us to form the idea that things have gotten a lot worse of late. So you and I need to be reminded of what we already know, that Christians have always been islands of eternity in a chaotic sea of change. We aren’t at home in this world, but this is where we have been put—and for a reason. And we are confronted with the same question those ancient Ephesians faced–How do we make the most of time we have been given in these undoubtedly evil days?
In his letters St. Paul was fond of comparing the Christian life to a footrace, and which is apt enough, I suppose. You have to remain focused on the finish line if you want to win the prize. It takes all the stamina and determination the Christian athlete can muster to capture what the apostle calls an imperishable wreath of glory (1 Cor. 9:24ff). All well and good. But from my point of view the Christian life is more like those construction workers walking along a ribbon of steel a hundred stories up above the city. Now I am a confirmed acrophobe, and so I look with awe at pictures of those sky walkers, eating their lunch like birds on a wire, perched on the edge of eternity, apparently so nonchalant. To me following Jesus is much like that, overcoming your fears, doing your job while balancing on a narrow beam. It is a terrifying place to find ourselves, beloved, but here we are.
It is a lonely place was well, so high up, looking down on the bustling world so far below. That why you and I need each other so much, beloved–for company on our narrow beam. Everyone else has someplace solid to stand; their feet are planted firmly on some patch of this world they claim as their own. But you and I are in-between worlds, here but with one foot stretched out gingerly towards eternity. It was a difficult balancing act for those Christians in ancient Ephesus, and it is for us too, beloved. Christians in every time, Christians no better than we are, have lost their balance and, like Humpty Dumpty, had a great fall.
It’s no wonder Paul cautions us to “be careful how you live,” or we might paraphrase his words by saying—watch your feet. Be mindful of your situation and make the most of its possibilities. There is a Zen teaching that goes like this:
All you who seek the Way
Do not waste this moment now.
Eternity may be the only thing that is ultimately important, but we were not born into eternity, like the angels. The ultimate purpose of our lives will be revealed there, but we were born into time. Especially towards the end of their lives or after the shock of a great loss, people have often asked me—Why am I still here? There is no real answer to that question for any of us. Why are any of us still here? We will never know fully what the purpose of our lives was until we have achieved it. Then it will come to us in that ultimate blinding flash of enlightenment. But in the meantime we are called to make mindful use of the hours as they pass, giving thanks for each of them and rejoicing in their brilliant possibilities. We are sky walkers, beloved, walking a narrow beam, stepping out toward the infinite. But while we still have one foot planted in the here and now, we need to “make the most of the time.” we have. We need to treat each separate hour of our existence—even most painful ones–as an unexpected gift, like a priceless jewel discovered by accident in the grass.
I had a wonderful teacher when I was in seminary. He told us only things that we already knew. There was no required reading for his class. There was no syllabus, no schedule of lectures. He made no requirement of attendance. The school forced him to ask us for a final paper so that he could issue us a grade, but he apologized for that beforehand. All he did was talk to us about whatsoever entered his head at the moment. He just let one thing lead to another, like water finding its own way. No one, himself included, knew where the stream would lead. But I never tired of listening to him teach. It was sheer joy, like hearing the Lord. Rabbi Lipmann had spent a large portion of his younger life on a kibbutz in Israel tending orange groves, and there he had acquired a great love of the trees he tended. Practically his whole thought during those years was of oranges, and from that intense concentration came a veritable mysticism of oranges. And it seemed as if Rabbi Lipmann could read all the secrets of the universe into the culture of that most miraculous of trees, the very Tree of Life.
One day he brought an orange to class and pealed it in front of us. (I don’t ever expect to see anyone peal an orange more artistically.) And as his fingers worked, making a single long perfect curl, he reminded us of what we already knew, or should have known–that our lives are not a single fruit, but many individual sections. He divided the orange among us—we were a small enough class for that—and all the time he was saying something this effect: We tend to worry about the meaning of life the whole, and judge its meaning and worth that way. But what is important about our existence is the significance we give to each part. Because how we spend our hours is, in the end, how we spend our lives.
Reading the New York Times has been a source of daily reassurance and comfort to my wife and me since we moved to Florida. There is a lot of unsettling information in the Times—who could deny it. Its apocalyptic visions are at times as vivid and alarming as those in the Book of Revelation. On its leaves we behold a world being ripped apart of tornadoes, incinerated by bombs, abducted by terrorists, and drowned under melting polar ice. Nevertheless, in all that mayhem, there is a word of cold comfort for residents of Florida who at times are tempted to believe that all the peculiar and alarming things in the world take place here, in the Chopped Nut and Candied Fruit Cake State. True, an awful lot of weirdness does flourish here. (I blame the climate.) But an awful lot of crazy-ass stuff apparently goes on in greater New York City as well. Of course, a lot of New York crazy will eventually migrate southwards, as everything does, and end up here in Florida, but if you read the Times you at least know what is coming, and forewarned is forearmed, as they say.
For instance, the Times recently reported that elderly Korean people have occupied a McDonald’s restaurant in Flushing, Queens, and are transforming it into a sort of septuagenarian clubhouse. The oldsters show up as early as 5 a.m. and camp out until well after dark, occupying the place so that there is no room for other customers to sit. From the point of view of McDonald’s the situation is going from bad to worse. They arrive in ever growing numbers with walkers and wheelchairs and leaning on canes, and order a coffee or share a small order of fries. Then they settle down to spend the day, chatting in their own native tongue about events, here and back home, about the weather, about their ailments, about nothing in particular. Or they just sit in silence, being together. They come to spend the day, dressed up to the nines. Mostly men, but also a few women. Other customers complain. The management fumes. But they say they are entitled to take their time. The police are summoned several times a day to tell them to move on. So the oldsters dutifully get up, walk around the block, only to return as soon as the officers have departed. This has been going on for the past five years, but during the last few months the stand-off has gotten ugly. Coffee has been spilled. Harsh words have been exchanged in several languages.
It’s not because they have no other place to go. Several local facilities provide nice, well-lit parlors for playing baduk, an Asian board game, and offer a multitude of classes from English to calisthenics. The Korean Community Center up the street has set up a cheerful little café with 25 cent coffee, but no one goes there. The seniors stubbornly return daily to McDonald’s, even though they say they do not really like the food there and feel manifestly unwelcome. But at this point it is a matter of principle. They have made a purchase and refuse to be rushed. They have a right to take all the time the need. Enough time to drink a large McDonald’s coffee—which is refillable. The sign in the McDonald’s says customers have 20 minutes to finish their food. That’s how much time McDonald’s wants to spend on each customer, no more. But how can you finish a large cup of coffee in 20 minutes? It’s impossible, the Korean seniors say.
The conflict goes much deeper than the question of how long does it should take to drink a large cup of coffee. It represents the clash between two conceptions of time and its meaning. For McDonald’s time equals profit, and profit is the highest good. This is fast food. In and out, the quicker the better. The ideal here is to reduce life to a perfect lightning flash. Now I would be very slow to take the side of McDonald’s in any matter. I myself don’t like the food there. (Except for their ice cream—which isn’t half bad and surprisingly low calorie.) But I can readily understand that from their point of view those Korean oldsters must be devilishly frustrating.
They had put themselves at odds with the whole idea of time as a lightening flash, and profit as the highest good. For them time is a preparation for eternity. The ideal is to slow time down until it reaches a motionless stillness. For them the highest good is not to be found in profit but in loss. The Buddha taught that there are four stages in a person’s life. First comes the infant, when the individual first discovers the pleasurable experiences of a body living in time. Then comes the child, when those pleasures are refined through play. When the person leaves games behind then comes the stage in which the five senses are developed most completely. Adulthood is the stage when we are in deepest bondage to the things that can be seen and heard, touched, tasted and smelled. We are gripped by them and we in turn seize them. It is the time of holding tight.
And if that were all there was to it, grasping, life would indeed be wholly tragic. But there remains a fourth stage when the senses loosen their hold on us and we are able to seek freedom from their tyrannical demands. This is the time of letting go when through meditation—what I would call thoughtful prayer—we can find the detachment from things which leads ultimately to peace. This fourth stage of life, according to the Buddha, is “more exalted and more refined than the former ones,” because it is an opportunity for the individual, freed from the sensory demands of the body, to be able to reach its highest potential. In that fourth stage of life time stops being a millstone and becomes a gift, an opportunity to reach the place where the clamor of our fears and desires is extinguished–what Emily Dickenson called “that stillness ultimately best.” And when that stillness is attained, the Buddha said, the person can greet whatever comes with calm indifference. And when it finally comes, death is as incidental and unimportant as a single leaf falling from a tree.
Now drinking a large cup of coffee at McDonald’s as slowly as possible will not bring anyone to that stillness ultimately best. But being able to take a day to drink one may be a sign we are on the Way. Whether they are fully aware of it or not, those Korean oldsters are in that fourth stage of life, where the furious demands of the senses are being replaced by detachment. They no longer care about being a nuisance. They are content to sit. To think. To be together. Or to be alone. Or simply to be. The coffee doesn’t matter. The fries don’t matter. The occasional visits of the police don’t matter. They just get up, calmly walk around the block, and come back and sit down again. They simply are. How much time is needed to finish that large cup of coffee? As much as it takes.
It all seems such a great waste of time, doesn’t it? Just sitting around sipping tepid coffee all day. It is just the sort of thing I was raised to disapprove of. When I was a kid my parents were always calling me on the carpet for doing just that, wasting time. They taught be to be ashamed of doing nothing when there is so much to do, and when they were no longer around I went on scolding myself for dreaming my life away. They were hard working people, my parents, two steps off the boat from Scandinavia, and it was their most deeply held belief that time is a precious commodity, like cattle or wheat, something so valuable needs to be converted into something equally valuable. Money. That means work, and work, my parents lived as well as taught, is the purpose of life in this world.
It is a very prevalent American idea, and I wouldn’t be much surprised if many of you were taught the same lesson. And I’m not being critical of the high value our parents placed on work. They were good people who toiled and sacrificed for us, and we have every reason to be grateful. But for myself, I have gotten pretty critical of the time is money idea. Ever since both my parents worked themselves to death, quite literally, I have begun to wonder if maybe what they taught me about using time was not so much mistaken as it was incomplete. And now that I have reached the fourth base—the place in life that is isn’t a place at all, somewhere between third base and home—I have come to believe that there is something very positive to be said for idleness.
When St. Paul tells us to “be careful how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil,” he isn’t telling us to get up off our lazy duffs and get busy. For the apostle, time is not a commodity, like pork bellies and barley, something to be converted by work into profit, but a gift, an allowance we have been given to spend in preparation for the eternal destiny we share as children of the resurrection.
And maybe sometimes making the most of the time is doing nothing at all.
Of course, some things still have to be done. St. Paul was certainly not anti-work. He was proud of working. And he taught that all Christians have a calling, or rather a series of things that need to be accomplished in the hours we are allotted. But the best use of time is what which brings us closest to Christ. Other things don’t ultimately matter. In his First Letter to the Corinthians in the midst of discussion of something else entirely Paul says–“I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on let . . . those who deal with the world [be] as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away” (7:29ff). And in a fading world there is no better use of time than what helps us detach ourselves from it–prayerful thought or mindful prayer or whatever brings us closer to what is Really Real.
In retirement I garden, as a promised myself I would. Now in order to have a garden you must make a garden. You have to plant and hoe and weed and water. But none of those things constitute a reason to garden. They are just work. I am so often distracted by the tasks of gardening that I have to constantly remind myself that the reason to garden is none of things that need to be done. It is so obvious, beloved, but that is why is worth saying. The only real reason to garden is as an excuse to sit and idly gaze at the beauty of a good creation. It is not a waste of time. Indeed, it is the only reason time was created. And we have not made the most of the time we have been given unless we have spent—or wasted, if you like—an hour or so of each day just sitting on the edge of eternity and looking.