Spring Semester started at Calvin College and Seminary yesterday. Again. Seems like not so long ago I was gearing up for this same semester, only that was a year ago. Fall Semester–and now our Interim–are in the rear view mirror of life, too, though Labor Day and the start of all that likewise seem like yesterday. On this Groundhog Day I will venture the all-too-common observation that time is fleeting and most days really do seem to repeat themselves not unlike the situation Phil Connor (Bill Murray) faced in one of the funnier movies ever made about this very day.
Much of life repeats itself. (Hillary Clinton is probably feeling that way this morning too–upstart Senators from nowhere seem to keep showing up to steal–or all-but steal–Iowa from underneath her.) Of course, a measure of routine in life is to be expected. Routine can even be reassuring in its own way, a fact one can see poignantly when witnessing what happens to dementia victims for whom a memory of anything routine is impossible. The result can be a near paralysis as each new day dawns and the dear soul quite literally does not know what to do or when to do it or how to do it. When I worked in a Christian mental hospital years ago, one thing we had to check up on for patients were ADLs or “the Activities of Daily Living”–basics like teeth-brushing, combing hair, changing out of PJs, etc. When in a fog of schizophrenia or a bi-polar depression/mania, everyday actions often cease unless prompted.
Still, life goes by so quickly that sometimes it feels like only the routines persist while all around you changes. I look at my adult children now and strain even to remember sometimes what it was like when they were little only a few short years ago. Where did those years go? When I first joined the Board of Editors for Perspectives magazine–the parent publication of The Twelve–some of my fellow editors would mention that they were on the verge of being empty nesters. That was 15 years ago and my kids were in 3rd Grade and Kindergarten at the time and so the prospect of their moving on in life was unimaginable to me. Until now, a few short blinks of the eyes later it seems some days.
Time sometimes feels like a burden. And yet as Christian believers we need to view it as also a gift. God in Christ entered our time to redeem our time and to assure us that our ever-passing “now” is even so remembered eternally by the God who remembers us and preserves us and our unique lives forever.
During our Interim at Seminary I taught the Imaginative Reading for Creative Preaching elective. Two of the things I had the students read tied in with time. One was from Oliver Sacks and his essay “Jimmie” which is part of his collection of essays The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. At some point in his life Jimmie’s mind got damaged–possibly through over-drinking–such that although he was now a man in his 50s, Jimmie was convinced he was 19 years old. Harry Truman was President, World War II had just ended, and Jimmie was recently discharged from the Navy. Jimmie’s mind had become a sieve. You could meet Jimmie, talk with him for an hour, leave the room, return within a few minutes’ worth of time, only to have Jimmie introduce himself to you as for the first time. No memory stuck. Ever. The result, Dr. Sacks noted, was that although Jimmie was affable enough, he was incapable of joy. Apparently we need to know time–and its passing–to know joy.
The second piece my students read was the classic E.B. White essay “Once More to the Lake.” In it White recounts taking his 5-year-old son to the same cottage and lake to which his parents had brought him summers when he was a boy. Upon getting there, White was stabbed with the passing of time, which seemed like no time at all. “There were no years” is a refrain in the essay as White watches his boy fish and swim and the memory of his doing those very things in that very place was so vivid, it was as though the 38 years since then had not passed at all. The essay concludes with White watching his boy put back on a soggy and cold pair of swimming trunks and as he watched the boy wince lightly as the cold material encountered his private parts, White said that in his own groin he felt the chill stab of death.
My students and I then recalled the C.S. Lewis observation that our noting the passage of time–and lamenting it–may serve as proof that we were created for something else. A fish in water has no concept of water, Lewis said–fish are in their natural element when in water. If our natural element were time’s swift passing, we would neither much note it nor lament it. Yet we do, hinting more than a bit strongly that we were created for eternity with God. In Christ, we are also assured that just that eternity is ours as a gift of divine grace.
And so it’s February 2 . . . again. But I am not sorry to notice the routine nor to be aware of the gift of time. Joy happens because we are aware of time. The longing for eternity happens because we are aware of time.
Oh, and that poor lost sailor Jimmie? Dr. Sacks once observed to the nuns who ran the nursing home where Jimmie lived that he had lost his soul on account of having lost all sense of time. The sisters were incensed and insisted Sacks come back the next day to watch Jimmie in chapel. Sacks did and was moved and amazed: Jimmie found himself in the liturgy. He knew exactly what to do to receive the bread of communion and in that moment when the priest placed the wafer on Jimmie’s tongue, Jimmie exhibited peace and wholeness and, yes, joy.