To live in twenty-first century America is to find oneself immersed in a culture that disdains limits. If part of the Enlightenment project was to create a world in which one could overcome the social and economic limitations of one’s birth to arrive as an autonomous, self-made individual, the West is now facing the wide-ranging implications of this centuries-long experiment.
For many of us, these cultural currents predisposed us to see limits as hardships to be overcome rather than guides to understanding our place as finite creatures before an infinite God. A generation of us grew up in elementary and secondary classrooms where motivational signs touting messages like “If you believe it, you can achieve it” were almost as ubiquitous as pens and pencils. Our parents told us we could be anything we wanted to be, and many of us believed it—at least until we realized our poor eyesight meant that we could never be an astronaut or that our twenty-inch vertical leap meant that the only way we could “Be like Mike” was by drinking Gatorade.
To some degree encountering our own inescapable limitations is part of growing up. Maturity is, in part, coming to terms with one's personal limits and the limits we all share as part of our humanity.
It’s this second category of universal limitations that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately in relation to my ability to thrive in ministry and life. In a world of seemingly limitless choices, to be made at will by the autonomous individual, it’s the limitations of life—things like time and place—that God is using to shape my understanding of what it means to flourish as a pastor and as a person.
The Limitation of Time
Of course, time—and specifically the passing of time that eventually leads to death—is one limitation even twenty-first century innovations can’t help us truly escape. We may no longer have the momento mori that marked the Middle Ages, but even as reminders have disappeared, mortality remains.
Our attempts to put the limitations of time out of our mind are wide ranging. Sometimes we entertain-away thoughts of time’s natural progression. At other times the frenetic pace of life keeps us from facing our own finitude. When the passing of time becomes unavoidable, we are offered an assortment of health programs and age-defying creams to help slow or ease the effects of time on our physical bodies. The dreamers among us have gone even further, conjuring up images of fountains of youth or time machines. But no matter the effort we expend, the limitation of time remains, and even those who find a way to grasp more of time’s thread find it tied to the same end.
And its not just our relationship with time on a macro, birth-to-death, level that is flawed. Many of us struggle to embrace the limitations of time on micro, day-to-day, moment-to-moment basis. Innovations like electric lights and on-demand entertainment have made it possible to overcome the limitations of night that previously played a defining role in human civilization. Even during our waking hours, we feel pressure to push the limits of time, rushing from one task to another, taking pride in our ability to multi-task. Now we can even attend a Zoom meeting in the car as we drive to our next appointment. It’s no wonder that books like John Mark Comer’s The Relentless Elimination of Hurry are so popular. We feel what theologian John Swinton calls “the tyranny of the clock,” but also feel as if there is little we can do to avoid it.
Thinking Biblically and Practically About Time
How might we come to terms with the limitations of time in a posture that moves beyond fatalism or denial toward understanding the limitations of time as a catalyst for flourishing and worship in our personal lives as well as in our families and congregations?
For me, these are real questions.
Like most of us, I feel the crunch of time regularly as I try to balance my responsibilities as a bi-vocational pastor, husband, son, friend, and father of four. One of the things I realized when I started thinking about how to develop a practical theology of time was that I had never heard a sermon on the topic, and though I’ve seen many books laying out a theology of the body or a theology of place, I have few book-length takes on developing a theology of time.
As a pastor, one of the things I’m trying to help my congregation learn to do is to think biblically about whatever questions they have. As I thought about the topic of time, the same methods of biblical thinking helped me orient my posture toward living well within the limits of time.
Time and the Created Order
One of the first things we notice about time in Scripture is that time is part of the original creation that God calls good, and each of the creative movements of God is described within the bounds of time, “And there was evening and there was morning the first day (Gen 1:5 ESV).” Furthermore, if time is part of the original good creation that exists before sin enters the world, then we know that time is a part of the creation that God ordained as a something that is both beneficial to his creatures and a channel through which we are to turn our hearts to worship.
The fact that God himself ordains a rhythm of time arranged in a seven-day cycle that still informs our understanding of a week is another aspect of creation that demonstrates God’s interest in helping humanity flourish within time. Notable within this cycle is the idea of setting aside time for rest, both on a daily basis during the night and then on a weekly basis during an entire day. This helps us thrive by giving us parameters for work and rest and keeps time from moving forward like an out-of-control steam roller. After six days, when time keeps coming non-stop and threatens to pick up momentum, we get the reset of the sabbath. During sabbath, the hours of the seventh day become a kind of partner in our spiritual and physical restoration.
Another way that scripture helps us think well about time is by offering alternative views of time. On the one hand, the overarching narrative of Scripture shows time as progressing toward a divinely ordained telos. In the biblical understanding, we are not stuck on a cosmic merry go round, but are rather in the midst of a story that is moving from a starting point toward a conclusion when time as we know it will be no more. (According to Revelation 21, even the regular cycles of day and night will cease.) In this progression, time moves from the Garden of Eden, through the hinge point of history in the garden of the resurrection, to the garden city of the new heaven and new earth.
Lately, I’ve found that thinking about this aspect of time can have a practical impact on the way I live everyday. The fact that God has a plan for time and stands both in time in the incarnation and beyond time as the God who was, and is, and is to come, can give us confidence about not only the future, but about the way in which we orient ourselves to the mundane moments of life.
One of the most helpful discoveries I’ve made in the last decade is the church calendar. Like the cycles of the week that help us work from a position of regular rest in the Lord, the rhythms of the church calendar offer us a framework for navigating the ups and downs of life within the story of Jesus. As powerful as the seasons of Advent, Lent, Christmas, and Easter are, I think the aspect of the church calendar that holds the deepest impact for me is the way these special seasons and holidays (or, holy-days) work together with what the church calendar describes as “ordinary time,” to represent the fullness of life as we know it.
What’s more, this ebb and flow is not only true to life but, in the biblical telling, is part of God’s good plan for us. The Bible is full of descriptions of folks doing everyday things. Gideon is in a wine press. Ruth is gathering grain at the edge of the field. David is watching the sheep. As the Gospel of Luke reminds us, even Jesus experienced everyday life as he “grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him” (Luke 2:40). A few verses later, Luke goes on to tell us that Jesus not only grew physically, but he grew in wisdom (Luke 2:52). In his humanity, Jesus experienced time and had a choice, as we also do, about how he interacted with the everyday hours, minutes, and seconds of life.
Life and Ministry in the Meantime
To begin to construct a biblical theology of time is to come to terms with our finitude as interpreted by the loving and providential care of the infinite God who has created time as a means of drawing us to himself in worship and relationship. For God’s people, the rhythms of each week and each year are meant to be part of this. They help us keep a perspective that understands the meaning of both the grand progression of cosmic time as well as the ins and outs of our quotidian lives, lives lived in what often feels like very ordinary time.
It’s helpful that both God and the church understand this dynamic. Within the church calendar ordinary time makes up thirty-five weeks (or about 67%) of the church calendar. The life of Jesus makes that seem like a low percentage. If we think about how many years of Jesus’ life receive any coverage in Scripture, a generous estimation gives us about eight years out of thirty-three. Perhaps the other 75% of Jesus’ life—the time when he was learning a trade, growing physically, and growing in wisdom—felt a bit, well, ordinary.
As I minister, nurture my family, and live a generally ordinary life, these rhythms and this understanding of time spur me to faithfulness that is sustainable and worship that flows out of the contours of everyday life. I am limited by time, and that is a good thing for the church I pastor, for my family, and for my soul.
Charlie Cotherman is program director of the Project on Rural Ministry at Grove City College. He is also a pastor at Oil City Vineyard, a church he and his wife Aimee had the privilege of planting in 2016. He has written on rural ministry, church planting, and history for a variety of publications including Christianity Today, Evangelicals, and Radix. He is the author of To Think Christianly: A History of L'Abri, Regent College, and the Christian Study Center Movement and a contributing editor of Sent to Flourish: Guide to Planting and Multiplying Churches. He lives with his wife, four children, and a spoiled cat and dog in Oil City, Pennsylvania.