The Fullness of Time

I don’t want to poison your morning, but you must know that summer is fast fleeting. July of 2022 is about to see itself out. It may even give incoming August a scornful glare as the two pass one another through tonight’s midnight doorway. It’s likely July will do this because it knows it’s leaving for good.

July of 2022 will never be with us again.

That’s the funny thing about time. People talk about how they’ll do this or that to save time, but in the end, time isn’t saved. I know what they’re referring to is efficiency. Still, I’m left to the plainness of thought that no one can store away extra time, putting it into an account for use at a later date. An eighty-year-old can’t take and use the time he saved when he was twenty. Time is finitely linear. C.S. Lewis described time as something that moves along at sixty minutes an hour, no matter who or what’s traveling in it. The pace is not optional. It happens with or without its passengers’ knowledge or agreement. As it carries along, no allowance is made for banking time, only spending it. In fact, if you don’t use it accordingly, it spends itself. That’s what some would call wasting time.

One of my favorite poets, Emily Dickinson, suggested in a letter to Thomas Higginson, “To live is so startling, it leaves but little room for other occupations….” Her point was that we make the most of the time we’ve been given when we’re truly living life. I don’t know for sure what she meant by living life. Knowing her poetry, I think it meant to appreciate as much of life’s vibrancy as possible before one’s last hour and the arrival of Death’s carriage. Whatever she meant, she went on to assume that living isn’t to be a solo act. In other words, for Dickinson, time was always best spent in the company of others—within physical reach, face to face, immersed in togetherness.

I think she was right. But I also think humanity is becoming less inclined to see things that way. Recalling the phrase “save time,” consider modern technology as an example. Humans have developed technologies designed to maximize productivity. These same things have breached the borders of social life and, in many ways, are all but guaranteeing lives lived in seclusion. They’ve become rearrangements of relationships for the sake of efficiency. Texting and email, Instagram and Zoom meetings; we’re communicating with others—and saying an awful lot through some wide-reaching tools. And yet, it’s all happening without ever having to experience others personally.

My friend, Rev. Dr. Peter Scaer, posted something recently that resonated in this regard. He wrote, “I know folks who are still attending church online. They prefer it. Well then, instead of the kids coming home for Christmas, they should just meet you on Zoom. Lot less hassle.”

His words sting, but they’re also sincere.

I went to see one of my shut-ins this past Monday. Her name is Frances. She’ll be turning 100 this December. That means she was born in 1922. For perspective, that’s the year the first issue of Reader’s Digest was published, the Lincoln Memorial was completed and dedicated, and the Bolsheviks murdered Czar Nicholas II and his family, securing total control of Russia. I asked this dear Christian woman what she remembered about her youth. Even though her memory is getting somewhat strained, she managed in her gentle way to explain how life today is absolutely nothing like it was back then. She wasn’t complaining but instead observing as best she could. She reminisced briefly about regular family gatherings as well as surprise visits from friends. Certainly, the telephone was an available means of communication in her day. Although, I read that only about 35% of American households had one in the 1920s. Of course, letter-writing remained the assumed means for communicating over long distances. Still, Frances seemed to suggest that in-person togetherness is what people preferred. To put it another way, a person would be more inclined to buy a bus ticket for a trip to someone’s home the next county over before walking to the corner drug store to use the community phone. People actually invested in being together. Convenience and efficiency weren’t as crucial to the human equation. The time it took to accomplish time together was considered time well spent.

The Christian community is geared similarly. A quick visit with the instruction given in Hebrews 10:23-25 shows this. It’s there we’re reminded to “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”

“…as you see the Day drawing near.”

Those are choice words. They’re another way of saying that this world’s time is running out. They also affirm Dickinson’s sentiment that time is best spent with others. In the case of the Christian community, it’s best spent together in worship. Of course, this is true not only for the Godly fellowship inherent to the gathering itself but for the sake of being together with and receiving from the One who established the community in the first place: Jesus Christ. We stir up one another to take time for worship because it’s time with Jesus, and there’s no better way to spend one’s time before the arrival of our final day. We need what this friend gives.

Thinking back to my time with Frances, she ended the conversation about her youth almost as quickly as I’d prompted it, saying, “It seems like it all went by so fast.” Again, she wasn’t complaining but observing. She certainly didn’t seem to be expressing regret. The time she’s been given has been put to good use. Like the rest of us, she’s not a perfect person. But she did manage to spend much of her time on all the right things. For one, she’s 99 years old and still sitting with her pastor, rejoicing in the mercies of God that are new each and every day. This tells me that by the power of the Holy Spirit at work in her for faith, she has taken into her very soul what it means to “make the best use of the time” (Colossians 4:5). She trusts her Savior, Jesus, having numbered her days accordingly (Psalm 90:12) to make sure each one includes Him. This trust is nothing less than a relaxation in the Gospel truth that all time has its fulfillment in Christ. It knows “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5). Connected to Christ, Frances knows each of the clock’s ticks in her life was aimed at this adoption, and now as her mortal timepiece winds down, there’s an even greater ease of knowing her grandest moments are still before her.

The Day is drawing near, and it will be a time with family and friends in a place unbound by time. More precisely, it will be a wonderfully unimaginable togetherness with Jesus—an unending face-to-face existence with the One who spent His time on earth the wisest, giving Himself over to the cross to save us for the endlessness of heaven.

Fishing ≠ Worship

It would appear that our world is indefinitely fixed with the global stamp which reads “Pandemic,” and so I don’t know what the future holds. For the most part, I’d say our efforts to maintain as a church engaged in public worship together here at Our Savior in Hartland is succeeding. It hasn’t been without snags, but it’s certainly been well worth the labor. (To see what we’re doing, click here.)

All I can say now is that we’ll keep doing what we’re doing as safely as we can for as long as we can. We’ll keep this stride knowing that if we need to make changes, we will.

I should say that through all of this, the people who comprise the congregation of Our Savior have proven one thing in particular. Instead of fleeing from public Word and Sacrament ministry, we’ve shown an instinctive desire for preserving it, and an even more visceral dismay at the possibility it could be snatched away. There’s a hunger for it, and we just don’t want to exchange it for other, less communal avenues—at least until we’ve met the absolute end of the road in our abilities to make it happen. With this spirit, we’ve been far more inclined to triple our efforts rather than reduce them.

This is by no means an indictment of anyone in our midst who hasn’t wanted to participate, nor is it a finger of critique aimed at other congregations. These are serious times, and I believe so many are gauging their situations and communities with honesty. Like us, they’re balancing. They’re doing what they need to do to be faithful. I’m glad for that. That being said, however, I’ll admit to being surprised by the road sign in front of a nearby Methodist church that reads something like, “We’re closed for March and April. Enjoy the break. Take this time to go fishing.”

Enjoy the break? Go fishing?

Hmm.

Putting the best construction on this, I’m hoping their sign committee (if they have such a thing) is just trying to be funny. Or perhaps they’re using insider terms, words that only the congregation members will understand. Maybe the sign is a wink to a recent sermon which preached that even as they’re no longer gathering together formally, they’ll be receiving God’s Word in other ways, and as they do, their communal focus will be to become better fishers of men among their neighbors. Still, the wording of the sign sure makes it look like taking a break from worship is a good thing, that somehow leisurely activities are viable alternatives to remembering the Sabbath Day and keeping it holy.

Thinking on the Third Commandment, Luther explains in the Small Catechism: “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.”

Pandemic or not, the Church has never been underwhelmed by people who bear the name “Christian” and yet betray a lack of love for holding the preaching and teaching of God’s Word in worship as important. The last thing I want to see is a church broadcasting such a disposition as good practice. It isn’t good. It’s ungodly. It’s deadly to the soul. It embraces a course of spiritual starvation that robs the Christian heart of hope.

On second thought, I want to take back what I said above about not knowing what the future holds. I know plenty of what the future holds.

I’m not talking about the financial markets or executive orders. I’m not talking about whether or not the store shelves will finally be stocked like they used to be. I’m not even talking about which of us, if any, will contract the coronavirus.

I’m talking about Death.

We’re all going to die. Virus or not, Death has ten thousand other doors for us to pass through, and at some point in our lives, each of us will go through one.

Being a reader of poetry, I appreciate how so many versifiers throughout history have observed and shared this fact. Dorothy Parker’s words come to mind:

It costs me never a stab nor squirm
To tread by chance upon a worm.
“Aha, my little dear,” I say,
“Your clan will pay me back one day.”

And of course, there’s Emily Dickinson’s infamous rhyme:

Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me—
The Carriage held but just Ourselves—
And Immortality.

Poems like these, no matter who wrote them, are observances of the point that we’re all going to die. They remind us that never in the history of the world has there ever been a man, woman, or child from any race, color, or creed who could stand his or her ground when mortal Death came calling, saying to the dreadful specter, “I refuse to go.”

All have gone. All will go. And God affirms this. The wage for Sin is death (Romans 6:23a).

And yet, there’s something else I know about the future. It’s an awareness fed by a divine wellspring of hope born from the Holy Spirit through the Word of the Gospel. I know that Death doesn’t have the last word for believers in Christ.

“…but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23b).

Through faith in Jesus Christ, eternal life is the final decree echoing well beyond Death’s ten-thousand doors and into an everlasting future.

It was François Rabelais (a 15th century French monk who was, unfortunately, overly influenced by humanism) who said with uncertainty at his Death something like, “I am going to the great perhaps.”

These words were spoken by a man who traded the truth of Mankind’s absolute depravity, as well as the certainty of an all-surpassing salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, for the deficient belief that, perhaps, mankind had a chance by his own merits, or perhaps through philosophy and science, we might gain better certainty of our eternal future.

Oh, the uncertainty of the great “perhaps”! Oh, the terror of doubt at the hour of Death!

But there’s no need for such uncertainty. Christians have certainty. The Gospel Word of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for our salvation is the beacon of eternal hope, and Christians lean into the headwinds of the future with it well in hand. Its luminescence is fed by the Word of God and His holy Sacraments—the verbal and visible means of grace Christ has established and then mandated for His Church to gather and distribute. The Lord warns that without the oil of these means continually being poured into the lamps of our hearts, the daily readiness of our hope in Him will be extinguished. No question. If the flame of faith isn’t being fed by this fuel, it cannot burn with the torch-like strength necessary for withstanding the squalls of this attacking world (Matthew 25:1-13).

No wonder our God commands for us to go to church (Hebrews 10:19-31). No wonder we hear our Lord say over and over again to so many just how important it is to hear the Word of God and keep it (Luke 11:28). And by the way, by keeping His Word, He doesn’t mean in the shallow sense of simply knowing and obeying it, as is often preached by so many. The word in the Greek is phylassontes (φυλάσσοντες). It means to fulfill one’s orders as a guard—to protect and defend a most precious possession, and to make sure no one can steal it away, being ready to raise a sword and shield against anyone or anything trying to steal it away. The harder truth in this is that sometimes the “anyone” is us and the “anything” is fishing.

Pondering all of this as I tap away at the keyboard this morning, I suppose there’s one more thing I know about the future.

What we do now will shape our practices later. Without absolute connections to Word and Sacrament ministry, people will drift away. It’s the nature of Man, and there’s plenty of data external to the Word of God to prove this. In the midst of a time when the sources for Word and Sacrament seem to be far more limited—a time that could feel a little like a spiritual drought—don’t let go of God’s Word. Get it from faithful sources where and when you can. If you can go to church, do it. If you’re concerned about being in public spaces during this time, stay home. Either way, commit to regular devotions, to watching your church’s services that are shared online, to hearing the Word of God and keeping it.

Let fishing be what you do after your most valuable possession has been secured and the oil in your lamp has been replenished.