What time is it? How many of us instinctively look at our watches or smartphones when we hear someone ask that question? Telling time is something we learn to do as a child by looking at where the hands are on the clock. Yet as we get older, we learn that telling time is not always as simple as that. Though the hands of the clock may work, well, like “clockwork,” time itself seems to be a bit more elusive. Depending on which team you are pulling for in a college basketball game, the final two minutes of the game may seem like two seconds or two hours. For high school seniors, the days until graduation seem far too many; for their parents, far too few. How slow does the time go when waiting for a loved one to arrive? How quickly does it pass before they have to leave?
Even the understanding of being “on time” can be elusive, differing from culture to culture or sometimes even person to person. We all know people who define “on time” as five minutes early, and others for whom being just five minutes late is as close to on time as they may get. My husband James and I have traveled to Kenya three times in as many years. There have been many jokes made there – on both sides – about the difference between American time and Kenyan time. In Kenya, if a meeting were supposed to start at 9:00, it might start by 9:30 (at the earliest!). That made many of us type-A Americans a bit antsy, glancing at our watches which our culture tells us dictate our schedule. However, in Kenya, it’s not a watch that dictates time, but people. When the people are gathered and ready, then the meeting begins – not a second before.
At the same time, if ever there were a people that needed to be on time – right down to the second – it’s the people of Kenya. James and I were there to serve with a ministry called Tree of Lives, a mission that provides holistic care and support for those suffering with HIV/AIDS. Most of the Tree of Lives clients receive life-saving antiretroviral medication provided by the U.S. government. The medication is highly effective if taken properly, that is, twice a day every day, at the exact same time every day. Whereas that 9am meeting may start at 9:30, 9:00 for medication means 9:00 on the dot. Not 8:58 or 9:01. There’s no fashionably late here. It would be challenging for any of us who have a watch or smartphone alarm to be that precise day in and day out. Imagine how much more challenging it is in some remote villages in Kenya, where the majority of people don’t own a watch or even a simple clock. Yet some 90% of Tree of Lives clients manage to take their medication successfully on time – day after day, month after month, year after year. How? We’ll come back to that in a minute.
For many of us, the issue is not just about being on time, but about finding time for all the many things that demand it. How many of us go to bed having checked off everything on our to do-list? How many of us go to bed with more things on that to-do list than were on it at the start of the day? When we look at all of the things we have to do, it seems there just aren’t enough hours in the day.
Yet the author of Ecclesiastes claims there are: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). The author then lists 28 items in 14 pairs – all multiples of 7, the number symbolizing completion or perfection in the Bible. Even the literary style suggests this sense of completeness, using pairs of polar extremes as a way of capturing everything that lies between them, all of life’s experiences, both literal and figurative: “A time to be born, and a time to die, a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted,…a time to tear down, and a time to build up,….a time to seek, and a time to lose,…a time to keep silence, and a time to speak…” (verses 2-8).
But even though the author describes the complete expression of the human experience, it doesn’t seem complete. Something’s missing. There’s no progression. The lines of the poem never stop, yet they never progress, much like the lines of our life may seem, when we go through the motions and carry out our day-to-day routines in a palindrome-like rhythm, back and forth, from sunrise to sunset. The monotony can sometimes leave us wanting to cry out with the author in that other famous phrase from Ecclesiastes: “Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless” (Ecclesiastes 1:1). Indeed, it can be meaningless – depending on how we tell time.
While there may be a season for everything, you and I can’t do everything. Yet, how hard do we try, right? Think about the typical opening words in a conversation with a friend or colleague. When someone asks, “How are you?”, what’s the most common response we hear? There once was a time when “fine” was the standard response. But today, more often than not, what answer do we hear? “How are you?” “Busy.” It seems busy has become the new fine. In fact, busy has become better than fine. We now determine the significance of a person by how busy he or she is. When I recall conversations with my peers in college and even in seminary, it was like we were trying to compete for who was the busiest, as if it were a poker game: “How are you?” “Busy. I’ve got two exams.” “I’ll see your two exams and raise you three term papers.” It’s laughable to me now, and yet I know I still play the same game. Different chips. But the same stakes.
And what’s at stake is this: Busy is not better than fine. In fact, busy often means I’m not fine at all. Next time we find ourselves responding to the question, “How are you?” with the answer, “Busy,” let’s ask ourselves why: Why am I busy? Sure, there are seasons where we just flat out have a lot we need to do, so we are busy. But often our busyness masks something deeper. Because often being “busy” is a barrier – a defense mechanism or excuse or other barrier that keeps us from experiencing true community. Typically, when we are busy trying to juggle everything we have to do, the first ball we tend to drop is our relationships. In those times when we most need to be in community, instead of investing more in being, we invest more in doing. The end result of such busyness is not greater significance and meaning, but ironically greater loneliness and depression.
There is a season for everything, but we can’t do everything, no matter how hard we try. And we were never meant to do so. Because when we try to do everything, we’re probably not doing one thing well.
Still, Scripture maintains there is time for everything.
How is there a time for everything under heaven when it seems there’s no way on earth to fit it all in? If we can’t make sense of it, then maybe it’s time we re-learn how to tell time – and it begins by getting a new watch.
After listing these pairs of life’s activities that never seem to progress anywhere, the author asks almost rhetorically, “What gain have the workers from their toil?” Then he answers his own question: “I have seen the business that God has given everyone to be busy with” (verses 9-10). To explain how to discern what that business is, the author continues: “God has made everything suitable for its time; moreover, he has put a sense of past and future in their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (verse 11). It’s an interesting statement, isn’t it? We have a sense of the past and future, but we don’t know the beginning and the end? If it seems paradoxical, maybe it’s because we get so caught up in questions of “When?” and “How?” that we forget the “Who?”
But the “Who?” question is what helps us adjust our clocks.
Flash forward to the New Testament, and we find that same language of beginning and end, not in the form of a timeline, but in the form of a person. When everything was made suitable for its time, in the fullness of time (Galatians 4:4), God sent his Son Jesus Christ, whom Revelation calls the Alpha and the Omega (Revelation 1:8), the first and the last, the beginning and the end. We might not know what happens in the beginning and the end, but we can know the Beginning and the End. When we let go of the time we have in our hands and live more in rhythm with the One who ultimately holds time in his hands, from its beginning to its end, then day by day we find that time falls into place, as we discover more of “the business God has given” us and, more importantly, the meaning of it all: “God has done this, so that all should stand in awe of him” (Ecclesiastes 3:14).
Our business of busyness places significance on what we do. But God’s business frees us to rejoice, not in what we do, but what God in Jesus Christ has done for us.
So which are we about: our busyness or God’s business? If we’re tired of being busy and want to be more about God’s business, then the antidote is found in recovering our sense of community – with God, God’s people, and ourselves.
Start by giving yourself time – time to do that vital practice of prayer and reflection. Maybe that means getting up a little earlier for some quiet time before anyone else in your house begins to stir. Maybe it means committing this week to turn down the noise. Our lives are full of noise, yet somehow we often choose to add to it. If you’re like me, the radio is constantly on while driving. If you find yourself needing that critical time to reflect, then commit with me not to turn on the radio this week while commuting back and forth, thus making quiet space to listen to the still small voice of God.
Spend more time being instead of doing. Disengage in order to engage – for, when we disengage from our watches, we will soon find Jesus calling us to engage a different watch.
As I shared earlier, in Kenya, time is marked not by the watch of the wrist, but by the watch of people – the watch of one’s neighbor. How do 90% of HIV clients manage to take their medicine on time without the help of a watch? Because they rely on the help of those who do have a watch. In each case, there was a neighbor or family member who had committed to get up and walk to the client’s house – however near or far – to make sure they took their medicine on time. Twice a day, everyday, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. And because of that seemingly small act, thousands of people are winning the fight against AIDS in Africa. All because a neighbor committed his or her time to something that transcends time.
What might Jesus do through you and me if we set our watches, not by our own needs, but by the needs of our neighbor?
What time is it? Perhaps it’s time you and I got a new watch.