Some years ago a friend of mine went for a job interview. He knew that things hadn`t got off to a very good start when the person behind the desk in front of him said, “You have seven minutes of my time”. There was something about the specific reference to `seven` minutes which gave the impression that he wasn`t going to have this person`s full attention-and certainly not for long. And sure enough; she actually `spent` those seven minutes filing her nails…..and my friend didn`t get the job.
Now, what we had there was a fairly blatant example of how we have come to regard time as a commodity. “You have seven minutes of my time”. It`s something all of us indulge in. Just think for a moment about the things we say: We say, “My time is my own”. We talk of `spending` time, `saving` time or `losing` time. We might dream up ways of `gaining` time or arranging things so that we don`t `waste` time. I`m sure you know what I mean. And these references to time are often quite casual, they`re part and parcel of everyday speech but maybe that`s the issue. These unthinking references to time may be telling us something significant.
I think the main thing, as I say, is that we have come to think of time as something to be manipulated or used; a commodity and just like in my friend`s interview we allow this outlook to shape our relationships and our common life. “Don`t waste my time”, we might say. Or, “I`m sorry I haven`t got time just now…”, “Thank you for giving me your time” we say. Time is, variously referred to as “short” or “tight” and interestingly it used to be common to hear people say, “Time is money”. The activity, the heart rate and the anxiety have all increased. We instinctively know something is wrong but we feel powerless to change.
And for some people this has serious consequences. So, for instance, I was talking some while ago with a group of people who work in what we call the hospitality industry. They work long hours, for low wages and significantly when it comes to time they work split shifts (perhaps an early morning followed by an evening) and whilst –if they`re fortunate- they might have two days off each week they are never that same two days- and they are never two days together.
What I`m getting at is that consequently these are people who are living `bewildered` lives. They often don`t know what day it is; or indeed what `time` it is. And when I spoke with them of the Christian heritage of keeping the Sabbath… of God`s gift of rest to his people. Of God`s gift of ordered time they were open mouthed. I told them how when God set his people free from slavery in Egypt (having had four hundred years without a day off) they understood what that was about. They could see they could see and understand why God should say to them “This, is how you will order your life”… according to a different and deeper rhythm of time.
Of course, it was this deeper rhythm which … in the name of `free enterprise`… was swept away in the Sunday Trading Laws and so on. The people I`ve just spoken of are the obvious casualties but in truth we`re no different. When you go against that God-given pattern of work and rest there are always consequences. Perhaps it might sound as if I`m saying “I told you so” but the social and spiritual consequences of treating time like this… without reference to the God-given rhythms are staring us in the face. Instead we have a situation where we all run to a schedule of our own choosing; and the Time Management Gurus flourish; and curiously, so do particular brands of religion. I call them `coping religions`. They are usually somewhat westernized and therefore twisted versions of Buddhism.
Their selling point often contains words like `meditation`, `mindfulness` and so on but the point is that they exist to help us cope with life rather than change it… and that is their real weakness. What I`m really getting at is that we appear to have sleep-walked into a situation where treating time as a commodity has led many of us into lives marked by helplessness and drudgery; whilst others endure anxiety about the `passing` of time and engage in a never ending battle to somehow control it. Trust me, over the last few years trying to arrange Funerals has become a minefield because death is seen by so many as an interruption in a busy schedule… an inconvenience for which we struggle to `find time..
Over these last few weeks many of us have done our best to engage with a period of time called `Advent`. It was summed up for us by some of St. Paul`s words. He told the Church in Rome: “Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers” (Romans 13.11)In those few words Paul lifts our eyes to what the logistics people call a different `time-line`.… to the activity and purposes of God in Christ.
I`m suggesting this evening that Christmas reminds us of the significance of “God`s time”. … and how he invites us to take time seriously. Not as something to be used, spent or indeed wasted but as the moment of encounter- of meeting with him. If we are, as I`m suggesting subject to what one author called `the tyranny of time` we need a faith which is far more than simply a coping mechanism; something to get us by.
Behind us, as I say is a deep heritage and wisdom about the ordering of time. And the keeping of Sabbath time, is I believe going to make a comeback; the shaping of Christian living will be the on the agenda in the years to come as more and more of us find ourselves saying “enough is enough”. But if we`re going to wake out of sleep, as Paul put it; if we`re going to be more conscious of the action and presence of God in our midst I would suggest that we might find help by first looking at the interruptions. Moments when our understanding of time is shall we say, challenged.
In our Gospel this evening we were told, “While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child”. (Luke 2) And what happened next is that we hear the story of the shepherds whose work is interrupted by the arrival of angels bearing good news. I found myself wondering if the head shepherd said, “Time is money” and objected that so many of his men should bunk off down to Bethlehem?
But what we see, I think is a group of people, these shepherds just minding their own business and then something unexpected, unplanned something `out of time` happened. This was their invitation to draw closer to God. In the same way we could do worse than look at the moments when our carefully laid plans and schedules are de-railed or delayed; or even at the onset of that really inconvenient cold or illness. I mean these are the moments when we acquire that curious label, “patient” aren’t they? We become someone with a different relationship with time don`t we? Look again at what you might consider an interruption because as the shepherds teach us: Interruptions can be Invitations: God`s moment… God`s time WITH US.