By Loren Seibold, Worthington Seventh-day Adventist Church, Worthington, Ohio
Summary: Suggestions on how you can move from governing the use of your time by the principle of productivity, toward the principle of wisdom—the getting of, developing of, and the use of wisdom.
Psalms 90: 1-12
O God, Our Help (Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal #103)
I have a dream that recurs every now and then. I've had it for years—all the way back to high school. Most recently it goes like this: It's Sabbath morning. I'm standing in my pajamas getting ready to shower. Suddenly I hear the organ playing and realize that it is just in the next room. I open the door, look into the sanctuary and see that church is about to start. Everyone is there milling around, and I haven't dressed yet. For some reason, I have to cross the sanctuary to shower and dress. I tell someone up front to get things started. Then I slip along the side aisle, hoping no one will notice. I try to dress but I can't find my suit or shirt or shoes, and time is running out. Before I go on, I realize that I don't have a sermon. So I come out to the podium without my shirt and start talking, terrified because I have no words. At this time, mercifully, I awaken.
This dream theme is fairly common. Its thesis is clearly the pressure of time. Life is passing, and I'm not keeping up with it. I have been talking about what people want most. If I had to make a guess, I think time would come out near the top of everyone's list. We are so busy. Often I've asked, How was your week? And the answer is, Oh, it's been terrible. I've been so busy; I can't even stop to breathe. There are profound spiritual perspectives on time in Scripture, and it's no accident that the one I've chosen today is often read at funerals. It is about the passage of time.
The first insight about time is that God is outside of or beyond time. Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God (Ps 90:2). C.S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity that, to God, the past, the future, and the present are all one. God is somehow in all times. Unless you’re a theologian, this may be mumbo-jumbo to you. Except that it leads to a second insight that is, that unlike God, we feel the pressure of time. A thousand years in God's sight are but the passing of a day (90:4), says the Psalmist. If that's true, God clearly doesn't have to consult his Palm Pilot. But we do. We are as the grass that grows in the morning, and when the afternoon sun hits it, it withers and dies.
Remember Mr. Peabody's Time Machine? It was a popular cartoon show. Mr. Peabody was a dog with glasses that had a time machine. With his boy, Sherman, they'd travel through time to make sure history worked out as it was supposed to. If I had a time machine, I can think of things in my history I'd change. But this is the stuff of cartoons. We are stuck in time and feel its passage. I feel as if my life is being pulled through a small hole, and all I get to live in is the tight spot it's being pulled through. We know there's going to be a future, we remember the past, but we only have the present moment.
The third insight from the psalmist's prayer and my focus is: Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom (90:12). What does this mean? As I was growing up there was always a little box on the front page of our local paper that appeared at Thanksgiving time. It said, Only 30 shopping days until Christmas. Merchants placed it there to pressure people to buy. It certainly worked for me. I was hoping my parents noticed the number of shopping days left too! I suspect numbering your days is as close as an ancient hymn writer would get to time management. I attended a time-management workshop once and didn't get much out of it. That's because it was mostly about scheduling, which is a literal form of numbering your days. There are schedule people and non-schedule people. I have a friend who maps out the entire day: 7:30: get up. 7:35: brush teeth. I can't do it. I have a general list of big things to accomplish and try to cross out some things before the day is over. Real time management, at least for us right-brained people, has more to do with attitudes than with keeping a careful date book. When do you feel like you're using your time most wisely? Most people would say, When I get a lot done. So the shape of time for most of us is productivity. A new attitude might totally reshape our sense of time, however. And, to me, that is what the Psalmist is offering—a reason for being careful about time that differs from the reasons we usually give.
How are you going to govern this limited commodity—time? You have heard it said: productivity. It's how much you get done. I say there is a deeper and far more spiritual governing principle: wisdom. I want to suggest that you move from governing the use of your time by the principle of productivity, toward the principle of wisdom—the getting of, developing of, and the use of wisdom. The goal of life then centers on all that fills the inner man and inner woman. Let me suggest three ways to number our days in this way.
I. The wisdom of owning less
Our church has a yearly rummage sale to benefit the Amistad Foundation. The people benefited are the Native Americans of the Copper Canyon and Sierra Huichol. These people absolutely would not understand what we mean when we talk about having so much stuff. Many of them live in caves or stone huts. They need food, clothing and medical care. My friends, we don't own our things. Our things own us. We have to maintain, move and clean them. More things equal less time. If we move from an outer governing principle of time, like productivity and stuff, to an inner reason like wisdom, it will change our attitude toward being a consumer.
We ate breakfast in Scotland with a couple that asked us about the United States. We heard, they said, that Americans only get two weeks of vacation. That's true, I said. Most of us only get two weeks of vacation. Americans get an average of 20 holidays, as opposed to 35-40 in Europe. It's worth the world to us to take time to kick back and relax, they said. More than money or more things. I'm not saying it's easy. We live in a very consuming society. In the spiritual dynamics of time management, we must learn what activities will maximize our getting wisdom. So this is first: more stuff equals less time.
II. The wisdom of doing less
In the wonderful old book, The Wind in the Willows, author Kenneth Grahame paints a picture of Ratty and Mole, living in contentment in a little hole in the river. In the story the worldly character is Toad. The other animals recognize toad as a good character, but he's always driven to do something new, get something new, or try something new. And he's always in trouble because of it. As you read, you clearly get the picture that wisdom does not lay with the wealthy Mr. Toad but with the simple-living Ratty and Mole. This classic achieved fame largely due to its marvelous description of idleness.
How often in your busy life have you penciled in, idleness? Even in our leisure we feel compelled to watch or listen to something. How about the need for idleness? Some of us are addicted to the feeling of being busy. This feeling is not often accompanied by a sense of accomplishment. Think about your busiest day last week, and then ask yourself how much of what you did has any enduring quality. Do you ever have days that go by in a fog when you can't tell one from another?
There is wisdom in deciding to do less. Many people in the world ought to be more ambitious, but that's not true of most of us. We often sacrifice our time to achieve things that won't last. Some people are addicted to work, and it costs them dearly in terms of family and friends. Some go on vacation and are busier than when at work! Now, this is very much a spiritual point. The Psalmist asks us to number our days to apply them to wisdom. There is little wisdom in working constantly for things! What we're talking about here is learning to be satisfied. I have a friend who is enormously successful. He's proud of his success, but that's the only thing that seems to bring him joy. There is much more to life than success. Sometimes that means being content and thanking God, sitting down and shutting up.
III. The wisdom of knowing what counts
The Christian who would recapture his time needs to set priorities. Let me list some priorities for you. Reading stories to children. Praying. That's a big one. You can't pray in a hurry. Hugging and kissing the people you love. Tending flowers. Stroking purring cats. Reading the Bible, or any thoughtful book. Making model airplanes. Sitting on your porch in the evening. Talking. Did you know that the average time a husband and wife spend talking is 13 minutes a day? Having a picnic. Thinking.
Next to all of these, work is a rather lower priority. You could even make the argument that having a spotless house is rather a lower priority. But we spend our time working and cleaning, working and cleaning. The Lord has told us what is good: to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. Teach us to number our days because time is short. If you have passed three score and ten, does it seem like 70 years have gone? Most people say it went in a flash. Life passes quickly. I have never heard anyone on his deathbed say, Oh, I wish I had spent more time at work. Oh, how I regret not washing my windows more often. People regret quite different things—the time they didn't spend reading to children, hugging and kissing, contemplating, praying, tending flowers. My friends, let us use our time to seek wisdom.