“Taking Time Seriously” – September 26, 2004
Mark W. Harris

OPENING WORDS – from Kalidasa

Look to this day!
For it is life, the very life of life.
In its brief course lie all the verities and realities of your existence;
the bliss of growth, the glory of action, the splendor of beauty;
For yesterday is but a dream, and tomorrow is only a vision;
But today, well lived, makes every yesterday a dream of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well, therefore, to this day.


Sermon

A birthday always makes one think about aging. While I enjoyed being 52
and hope the 53rd year I enter today will be just as good, I am also aware
that just last week I conducted a funeral service for a man who was younger
than I am. A relatively young heart attack victim like him always makes us
wonder why he died. Was it years of bad diet of french fry fats, or lack of
exercise, or did he drink too much, or was he under too much stress, or did
he work constantly, or was it some combination of those factors? Throw the
gene pool into the mix or sheer bad luck and we have our share of relatively
young people who meet their fate before their time. Well, what exactly is
their time? We all think we should be able to reach the Biblical four
score, but few men especially accomplish that goal. Time in this sense is
how we live out our lives with the implication being that if we lived them
in a more balanced state of diet and exercise, we would not only be happier,
but we would live longer, too. How do we bring ourselves back to this more
balanced state?

This sermon is a response to an effort by the Massachusetts Council of
Churches to achieve this greater balance in our lives. The campaign is
called Take Back Your Time. The council makes its argument with some
alarming statistics. Some examples are that 26% of American workers take no
vacation. We work longer hours than Medieval peasants – 80 % of men work
more than 40 hours per week. All this results in overwork and a relentless
pace of life. We go to England, as my family did last spring, and we come
back saying, they are always on holiday, they have no work ethic, they don’t do anything, or get
anything done. We have made doing and producing our everyday idols, but all
this labor has not resulted in anyone having more time for themselves or
their families because the money they make is worth less and less in real
dollars, and so they just work more and more.

The Council has become alarmed because its members feel that we have
lost our religious sense of sabbath. Sabbath , as we learned again in the story,
is that time set aside in the week when we rest and reflect, spend time with
loved ones and friends and are present for each other. The roots of sabbath
are ancient as we know from the creation story that is central to both
Judaism and Christianity. On the 7th day, God rests. We look at what we have
done. We pronounce it good. Later when the Jews safely escape out of Egypt,
they receive commandments, of which one reminds them again to keep the
sabbath holy. Every week, they said, have a time of no work. There were
even laws against such things as worrying or mourning on the sabbath. Most
important, it was the day when you felt like yourself again. How do we come
to feel like ourselves again, and not some bedraggled, scattered, workaholic
self? How often do we say, I have no time to do that.

Do you have a sabbath? The Council’s campaign suggests we take Four
Windows of Time over the next month and engage in slow, simple life
renewing activities. It might mean a walk in the woods or reconnecting with
a spiritual tradition or anything that is not an obligation, a duty or a
guilt laden exercise. The purpose of this is that we might take our time
seriously. We need more time, not to fill with work, or television or trips
to Target, but with each other, in the woods, on the rivers. We liberals
sometimes think we are a spiritually advanced people because we are
understanding of other faiths and believe in one universal source of love,
because we think critically and rationally about issues of faith, because we
believe that people should be able to discern for themselves important paths
to truth. Yet how many of us are tired, and don’t feel like ourselves? How
many of us need times of renewal and rest that we fail to take because we
are too busy. The other night I was at a meeting, and heard about a person
who does not come to church because Sunday is her down time from a busy
week. This makes good sense personally in terms of celebrating the true
meaning of sabbath, but what does it say about how some people feel about
church? Shouldn’t church be one place which give us time to reflect without
guilt? If church is draining or feels like work, and thus is not renewing,
then the one place where sabbath should be lifted up for all our lives needs
to change.

Western culture has usually understood time in two ways. On Wednesday
night my family was in Cambridge for the River Sing: Bridging the Charles
with Voice and Light. This was a celebration of the autumnal equinox with a
giant puppet of the goddess Oshun waving goodbye to us as summer was put to
rest, and the day and night became equal. Seasonal changes of time as a
recurring circle shows us that time can be comforting in that it is predictable and balanced, but it
always bring death and decay as well. Like the seasons our days of the week
are repeated over and over, and are a reflection of those seven days of
creation with one given over as the day of rest. It is no accident that
these days are named for Gods. Sunday was a day for sun gods, and the Romans
already worshipped Mithras. In Christ they had a new sun, and Constantine
made it the official day of worship. They did not want to be like the Jews
who worshipped on Saturday, named for its own god Saturn. Our English names
for days are closest to Norse gods, like Odin or Woden’s Day for Wednesday.
Different languages make some of the god names more clear. In French Tuesday
is Mardi, expressing its relationship to Mars the God of war, whence my name
also derives. The fact that each day is a god represents that our language
seeks to inform us that religion is not just a Sunday affair, but is rather
a balance we need for our souls in all days of the week inspired by the
sabbath.

If the seven days of the week repeat themselves, they also move forward
in linear fashion. While seasons and nature make us aware of cycles, linear
time is measured in progress and growth caught in an eternal plan of God’s
salvation. Some of the earliest liberals in America wrestled with this
seeming paradox of time. Religiously they were known as deists. They
believed in a God who created a world that was imaged as a clock, the watch
maker God, who set everything in motion, and observed what happened , but
never interfered. In some ways this God represented a mechanistic view of
things – things run on time. Yet this was also the God who had created
nature’s laws of harmonious but non linear cycles. I used to see this
represented in the old Farmers Almanacs my parents purchased every year to
help inform them about planting. On one hand it seemed to have all this
scientific information about dates and lunar events, but on the other its
predictions of weather always seemed like magic with those same inconsistent
results. This seems to represent the dilemma we find ourselves in as well.
We need some of those magic times to balance those mechanical work hours
that so dominate our souls.

Today I want to suggest four ways that we might help renew the spiritual
sense of sabbath in our lives. Let me illustrate the first by telling a
story about sabbath. Once there was a rich Persian merchant who loved all
kinds of refined things. One Friday he walked past a Jewish home, and
inhaled a delicious smell. He asked what was cooking on the stove, and was
rewarded when the family gave him the recipe, and he took it home. His wife
followed the recipe for the soup, but the delicious smell was not
forthcoming. He wondered what was missing. The following Friday he stopped
once again at the Jewish home, and personally observed every ingredient that
went into the soup. This is fool proof now he thought. But after his wife
made a second pot of soup he said, Bah!. This is still not the same. His
wife became angry, and said the Jews were playing a trick on him. She said
there must be a secret seasoning. The following Friday, he appeared at the
Jewish home again, but this time his tone was demanding. Tell me, what you
put into this soup that I smell every Friday evening. What makes it so good?
The family looked around the room. It was swept clean. Places were set at
the table with cups of wine. The candles had been lighted. There were no
other distractions. All was prepared for a special family time together.
Everyone was looking relaxed and happy. It was true that a delicious odor
filled the room. The Persian said, you have some secret seasoning you are
keeping from me. What is it? The father smiled, the secret seasoning is the
Sabbath itself, it makes everything taste so good. How often do we notice at
holidays that the specialness of the occasion makes everything taste
marvelous. The warmth of the room created from our intentions does it. The
first thing we notice about this story is that there is a need for regular
special time. It does not just automatically happen as the Persian wished.

Do we go to church once, or meditate once, and say this does nothing for me?
Reflection must be purposeful and regular. This past week I look a long
walk which culminated on the pathway along the Charles River. I had not
done this long walk in some weeks, and since we had returned from Maine had
little movement at all. The next day I had one calf that ached and ached.
While it was good that I took the time once, the pain in my body told me
that I hadn’t taken the time away from my work life to renew myself. Take
the time.

Second, that time needs to be focused. Finding time to renew yourself
does not mean multitasking, and it might even mean turning off the cell
phone. It is a time to truly pay attention. One thing I have found as I get
older is that I notice things about my environment more readily, and
especially about my body. After fifty the body creaks more so getting
started in the morning is a slower process. I need oil like the tin woodman
in the Wizard of Oz in order to function. While body pain reminds me of my
eventual demise, I also notice time slipping faster and faster into the
future. People my age do die, and the years spin by. The gift from the
faster movement of time is that I notice my surroundings more. I see flowers
and trees, smell the roses, and turn with the tides. I become less concerned
with how I look and how others perceive me. A few years ago in his book The
Miracle of Mindfulness, Thich Naht Hanh said that we need to wash the dishes
in order to wash the dishes. He meant in order to fully be present for the
task we must be one with the task, and not thinking about something else, or
getting on to the next thing, always distracted for one reason or another.
Learning to sit meditatively is about paying attention. Kathleen Norris
gives us a good sense of this in the reading from Dakota.

I remember my father taking the time to go outdoors with me in the summer
nights to look up at the stars – big and little dippers, Orion and the Milky
Way. Finding our way back to ourselves means really looking at our
surroundings. We become focused in star-time.

It may be obvious but the third thing about finding our way back to a
sense of sabbath is that we do not have to be exotic or unusual. The focus
these days on people in the west discovering Buddhism, or the New Age use of
ancient nonscientific arts like alchemy or crystal gazing or even rational
UUs relying on horoscopes tells us that people are longing for something
spiritual, but what we need for time, reflection and a sense of peace may be
no further than our back door. Like the spiritual practice of washing the
dishes, many of us who literally do not have time for the exotic must focus
on finding a little piece in the midst of chaotic family lives- a dinner
together, a candle, a shared dream, a walk on the beach. Recently my family
had an hour together on the Charles in a canoe. Despite the usual cajoling
of children, being together on the rolling river with swans and herons and
geese surrounded by water lilies and weeping willows was an experience
I wished to return to again and again.

The poet Gary Snyder gives a sense of finding the sabbath in the every
day in his work “The Practice of the Wild.” He writes, “It is as hard to
get the children herded in to the carpool and down the road to the bus as it
is to chant the sutras in the Buddha-hall on a cold morning. One move is
not better than the other, each can be quite boring, and they have the
virtuous quality of repetition. Repetition and ritual and their results come
in many forms. ” This is why I picked the Billy Collins poem on Buddha as a reading for
today. We expect the image of the Buddha to be sitting in the Buddha-hall,
but he is shoveling snow. His true religion is paying attention to what he
is doing with no other purpose than the doing of what he is doing. Throwing
himself into his shoveling like it is the purpose of existence shows the
pure simplicity of the act, and the need for us to take time for pure simple
pleasures – then he takes that to its logical conclusions – hot chocolate, a
card game. Time together.

While we have talked about regaining the sabbath by giving regular time to
an activity, focusing on it, and keeping it simple, the fourth element of
finding time for ourselves again is that it not be work. It must renew,
refresh, and give us a deeper appreciation for our life, our family and our
creation. We have a bad habit as Americans of making our time of rest and
renewal into work. If we take on a physical activity many of us strive to
perfect it and demand that we do the thing well – we ask how long, how fast,
and being competitive, we also ask, how much better do I do it than than
someone else? Our consumer side also prevents us from truly appreciating
the simplicity of the sabbath. We become concerned that we must purchase all
the right equipment and it must be all the right name brands- the authentic,
the best. There is danger in making our sabbath in to more work just like
the parishioner who says she does not want to come to church because it is
more work -they’ll just ask me to do something. We must remember to give
space to the need for sabbath on the sabbath.

In his fine book on meditation, Wherever You Go , There You Are, Jon
Kabat-Zinn tells the story of Buckminster Fuller, who is best known for inventing the
geodesic dome. After a series of business failures, Fuller felt he had made
a mess of his life. One night he contemplated suicide. Fuller was a creative
and imaginative man, but nothing seemed to work out. That night he decided
not to take his life, but he vowed to go on living as if he had died. What
that meant was that he no longer had to focus on how things turned out. He
was free because every day of his life henceforth was viewed as a gift. His
new job was to no longer be a productive, money producing worker, but rather
to be an employee of the universe at large. He began to ask himself things
like what he could do for the planet, how could he make a difference in the
world. Rather than what he would do, he thought more deeply about being
himself. What does it mean to be alive in this point in time? What if we
all asked, what is my job on the planet? Most of us cannot completely
refocus our lives, but reflecting on the meaning of sabbath for each us
means reflecting on who we are, how we are, and what we are doing at this
time in our lives. It is never too late to ask ourselves these questions
about ourselves, and rediscover a sense of sabbath.

I sometimes think that having birthdays and getting older help me ask
these questions more deeply and more fully than I did 20 years ago when I
was more concerned with pleasing others, and fulfilling a role.
Encountering an ocean wave and nearly dying made a difference my life, so
that I could begin believing that each day of life I receive is a wonderful
gift. I don’t always give time to rest and reflection, but when I do I know
I am happier and healthier and more whole. Thomas More tells the story of a
woman coming to him saying, I want a better life . I want to do something
about this feeling of emptiness I have every morning when I get up. He asked
her, do you ever dream? The implication was we need time to sit and reflect
on our thoughts, our hopes, our feelings. If we don’t we lose ourselves in
work, in doing, in list making. Sabbath restores us or brings back to
ourselves. Ask yourself, do I ever take time to dream my true self into
being?


CLOSING WORDS -from Thoreau’s Walden

Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I
see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides
away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose
bottom is pebbly with stars.