Thursday, January 09, 2014

Telling Time

. . . but why do you not know how to interpret the present time (Luke 12:56).

“I am the town clock-winder for Island Pond, Vermont.”

So wrote Garret Keizer in his fine memoir, A Dresser of Sycamore Trees. In his book Keizer reflects on his life as an Episcopal lay-pastor in a rural New England town. As the church’s solo pastor one of his duties was to climb into the steeple twice every week to wind the clock. This involved cranking two large spools of cable – one for the face of the clock and one for the bell that marked the hour.

Far from resenting such a mundane task, Keizer seems to delight in the insights he gleans from being the town’s clock-winder. One of his observations resonated with me as a very helpful picture of what we mean when we speak of a post-Christian world. He rescues the phrase from the academicians when he writes

The public keeping of time has passed from the church and possibly the municipal building to the branch bank. In most towns of any size that is the place to look for a digital display of the right time . . . It was logical for a church to tell people the time when one of the things they needed to know time for was when to pray, and when church feasts and holy days colored the calendar. Equally logical is it that a bank should tell the hours to a populace for whom time is not liturgical but financial, who inhabit a fiscal year broken into quarters and the maturation periods of certificates of deposit (p. 86).
Keizer seems to be saying that when the church steeple rang the hour it declared that time was sacred. The digital display in front of the bank declares that time is money.

Of greater significance than how we tell time is the shifting locus of authority in our world. Whether the hour is displayed at a bank or city hall or on a cell phone, the church has lost its voice in the ordering of the day, perhaps in the ordering of life.

I’ll go one step further with Keizer’s insight. Not only does the church no longer have voice in the ordering of time, the church’s organizational life now finds itself smothered in competition for the hours that belong to its own members. A persistent and insidious barrier to meaningful spiritual growth is the busy-ness of life, what John Ortberg has named ‘hurry sickness.’

Earlier today I heard the carillon bells in the steeple of the church where I serve ring the noon hour. I love hearing that sound from my office or from within our sanctuary. Sadly, the hundreds of cars blistering the asphalt on Roswell Road didn’t hear what I heard. The hearing requires some measure of stillness.

This is not to suggest that the only activities of the day that have spiritual significance are activities that happen inside a church building. Rather, what Keizer invites us to ponder is the way that faith is squeezed and choked in the post-Christian world’s use of time.

The question for all of us is not about how much time you spend at church – but how the church’s message shapes what you do with time.

How might you take your schedule for this day and make it holy offering unto the Lord?

Gracious God, “my times are in your hand” (Ps. 31:15). And not only my times but my time – the hours and minutes of this day that you’ve placed before me. Order my steps, making every minute yours, lived thankfully and for your glory through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

A Spiritual 'Polar Vortex'

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering . . . (Hebrews 10:23).

I’ve added a new phrase to my vocabulary this week: ‘Polar Vortex’

I’m writing this on a day when I woke up to a temperature reading of 8 degrees. Some have said it was actually colder than that. The culprit: ‘Polar vortex’ – a system of strong counterclockwise winds that typically surround the northern pole. Somehow that mass of frigid air got lost and wandered down to Georgia.

Once things get this cold down here the actual temperature hardly matters. The simple truth is that we’re not equipped to deal with this kind of thing. As I write the skies are sunny and the roads, for the most part, are clear and dry – but area schools are closed. Our neighbors to the north mock this. But school administrators, not to mention parents, are not going to have kids waiting on busses in single digit temps. Said another way, few of us are dressed for the occasion.

But occasions like this are rare in these parts, and that’s the good news. This kind of weather is an anomaly. The polar vortex will soon make its way back where it belongs and the Sunbelt will get back to its comfortably ‘chilly’ winter.

I wish the same could be said for the spiritual climate in which we’re living these days.

A ‘religio-cultural’ polar vortex has moved into North America and Europe. Just as much of the country is in the grip on an arctic air mass, North America and Europe are in the grip of ‘Post-Christendom.’

There is however one significant difference. Post-Christendom is not going away. We will not soon be returning to a more familiar and Christianized culture in America and Europe. The climate has changed – and we had better learn how to dress for the occasion.

In his book Exiles, author and Professor Michael Frost says it like this:

There is barely a congregation or Christian organization that has not bemoaned the waning impact of the Christian story upon American or Western society. And although many Christian voices are calling us back to the days when the church occupied a position of power and influence over Western society, nobody with any real sense of history believes we can save Christendom . . . The Christendom era, like Rome, has fallen (pp. 6-7).
So what does this have to do with you? Given the climate we’re living in, there are two mistakes we need to avoid. One of those mistakes is to stay indoors. In the current climate there are Christians who dig in and hunker down. Their posture is protective and defensive. Their demeanor is anxious.

The second mistake is to try desperately to accommodate the climate. We humans can live with arctic air, but we can’t live in it – at least not for long. Well intentioned efforts to live in a post- Christian world can sometimes lead us to stop being truly Christian.

Following Jesus is an uncomfortable calling. It means living in tension – faithful to the gospel while loving our world. That’s what we want to be learning more about in the days to come.

So how are you doing in the current climate? Which of these two mistakes are you most likely to make?

We ask you, O God, to make us equal to the times in which we live. Keep us faithful to the gospel and fill us with compassion for this world. Remind us daily that you are alive and well in every climate, in every place. Sustain our hope, we ask in Jesus’s name. Amen.