“Time’s a Wasting” by Mark W. Harris
November 11, 2018 – First Parish of Watertown
Opening Words – from James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room
Tell me, he said, “What is this thing about time? Why is it better to be late than early? People are always saying, we must wait, we must wait. what are they waiting for?”
“Well […] I guess people wait in order to make sure of what they feel.”
“And when you have waited—-has it made you sure?”
Reading – from Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine by Alan Lightman
What is your time worth? The question came up in my wife’s extended family in the context of spending money to repair a clothes washer at the seaside cottage in Owls Head, Maine. Let’s say you have a thirty year old washing machine, and it stops working. If you are like me you know you do not have the skill to repair anything like that, and so you call an appliance repair company. In my case trying to repair it would always be a waste of time, as I would probably break it some more, if that is possible, but I certainly could not make it run again. But it is different for many other members of the family. Some would approach this dilemma with the assumption that you will do everything possible to repair the old washer. That may involve the time needed to figure out what is wrong, buying replacement parts and then fixing the machine. It may take hours or even days, but you may not think about the value of your time. The goal is to have a working machine, no matter how long it takes. Moreover, you may not even ask if it is worth your time to try to fix this machine. Yet your devotion to apparently saving money by fixing the machine may mean hours you are taking away from the walk you were planning with your wife, or a day from the one week of vacation you have. While you may say, I enjoy spending my time this way, your loved ones may not agree. And so some members of the family may get fixated on fixing the machine, and they fail to consider what their time is worth.
This question may surface in any endeavor. I could ask myself what activities I engage in which are a waste of time. On Thursday a colleague asked me about pacifist Universalist ministers during World War I. My passion for giving historical answers led to my creating a little research project for myself. But she didn’t really ask for that. Taking this on extended my day, and took away time from Andrea, and moreover prevented me from doing my real job, which is writing a sermon like this.. While it may be something I respond to because they asked, I end up doing someone else’s work for them, or doing something that is not really my responsibility. Does my time usage reflect how much I value myself? As Scott Peck says, in The Road Less Traveled, “Until you value yourself, you won’t value your time. Until you value your time, you will not do anything with it.”
But what does it mean to value our time? Most of us learned it was to make it productive, and thus we probably didn’t even consider whether we were valuing ourselves in the process What was important was the work itself. Work hard and you will get ahead. Keep your nose to the grindstone. Idle hands are the devil’s workshop. Time is money. Most of us blame it on the Protestant work ethic. We say our Puritan ancestors were so plagued with the concern about whether they were saved or not, they threw themselves into their work so that they did not have to think about the horrors of damnation and burning in hell. It was a sin not to work hard, and if you didn’t work, you would pay the price. Hard work became the formula for success, and God’s favor, and idleness led to failure, and God’s rejection, and so we stereotyped the poor as lazy and good for nothing. We learned that wasting time, defined as anything that was not work, was bad.
This surfaces in a variety of ways. For me, it may be when I am doing nothing, like looking out the window meditating or going for a walk, and I tell myself that I should be doing the laundry, or reading a book, or raking the leaves. For some reading a book might be pleasure, but for me it has always been work, too, as I have usually read books that I can use in sermons or teaching, but pleasure, as we learned, was bad. So we may feel guilty when we are not being productive. The interesting question for me is what I will do in retirement. Will I actually be able to read for enjoyment? This is a serious problem for all those who make pleasure into work. We can only run to keep in shape, or prepare for a race, or make a certain time. We cannot run, or walk, or read to run or walk or read. When I mentioned walking the other day, the person I was talking to asked me whether I was measuring how far I walked on my Fitbit. The proper measure of time here may be whether we see ourselves as a machine that’s doing a job, or a person that’s here to enjoy their short time on earth.
Whether we take up valuable time fixing the machine, or if we make ourselves into a machine, we still may not be valuing ourselves in the time we have been given. Historically, religion has taught us that we need a day of rest, or what was called the sabbath. The sabbath was a reflection of God’s day of rest, as seen in the creation story. We need one day out of the week when we are not engaged in work. Jews created all kinds of laws about observing the sabbath. For example, there are thirty-nine main categories of work that cannot be done from the moment the sabbath begins at sundown until it ends. Of course this was not about creating a day for pleasure, but for creating a holy time, when we were supposed to be protected from our desires. Puritans, for instance believed that babies were born on the same day that they were conceived. Thus if you were born on a Sunday, then it became clear that your parents had sex on the sabbath, and this was certainly an expression of desire. After the baby was born the parents had to confess their sin before the congregation. Any volunteers here? While we were once a Sabbatarian people, that has changed with the dismissal of the Blue Laws that once kept stores closed on Sundays, and most other forbidden activities, which we now grudgingly accept, such as family parties or team practices. Yet we still notice that longing for a sabbath that we feel. We go away for a yoga retreat, or weekend of skiing because we want to get away from the rat race of working all the time. We know there is a bodily and spiritual rhythm to work and rest, and realize that we are not getting enough of the rest part. We remember the sabbath when we go away and don’t live by some self-imposed schedule.
Many of us recently spent countless hours watching baseball games. Baseball is one of my great passions in life. About a week and half ago I went to the parade celebrating the Red Sox championship run. I had never been to one of these Duck boat parades before. They generally don’t interest me, but a friend called me up, and wanted to go. The parade didn’t really consist of much – confetti blowing machines, adored athletes waving from the decks of these boats on wheels, and seas of fans dressed in red chanting derogatory things about the baseball team from New York, even though they had beaten a team from Los Angeles. Then it was over. Afterwards Andrea pointed out to me that I didn’t really go to enjoy the parade, but to spend time with Jim. The day was an interesting mix of our conflicts about time and how we value ourselves. Part of me was saying I am taking a day off from work and completing wasting the time. Here I was worshipping at the altar of overpaid athlete Gods, while the average person in the street can’t afford to go to one game. It is symbolized by the expensive paraphernalia and memorabilia which represent our devotion to consumption and the commercialization of leisure. But I was also aware that I had never done this before, and it was a day with a friend whom I will live four hours away from in a matter of months. We could ride the bus together, and walk together, and talk about the history and sports we both love, yell for our favorite heroes, and have a nice lunch together before bidding farewell. We would enjoy time together, a few moments of pleasure and the joy of each other’s company. And how is that wasting a day?
Undergirding all this is the love for a game despite the money and commercialization. This began with spending every spare moment of my youth either playing the game, watching it, or learning about it from the countless baseball cards that littered my room. My father always believed that it was something about the pace of the game. The great thing about baseball, he said, is that there is no clock. It is an athletic contest not governed by the rules of time. It is not how fast the race is run, or how many points you can score in four quarters. It is a leisurely paced game that will not be, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, over until it is over, even as late as a 3:30 a.m. World Series game.. But today people react to the endless four hour, boring encounters and refuse to watch the games.
Billy Collins has a poem called “Bags of Time.” He heard the phrase when he was visiting the Outer Hebrides in Scotland and the owner of the inn where they were staying told them that they had bags of time to catch the ferry to the island. He wondered what a bag of time might look like, and how much time it might hold. He had time to think about such things as the ferry loaded its travelers and he drove his car down into the hold. He said the color of the bag of time might be the same as the lone sailboat that was anchored there just waiting, a beautiful sky blue. And once they were in motion, he thought of the boat turning out from the pier, as countless ferries had done for many bags of time. They were usually on schedule , the deckhand told him, unless the weather interfered. Weather can interfere with a baseball game. This summer I sat for two hours in the rain waiting for a game to be played, and it finally was. Sometimes we need to take a rain check for another time and place. We can’t always predict the weather, and while those forecasters try to give us some degree of certainty about what tomorrow will bring, we can never know for sure.
There are three things we long for in life even though there is considerable evidence to the contrary. Those are certainty, permanence and immortality. Even in the span of time we are each given we follow the clock to give some certainty about when the sun will come up and when it will go down, even if we become confused this time of year when the time shifts and makes us tired and cranky, because we have lost a momentary handle on our certainty. The shifting seas and changes in our lives, tell us nothing is always as it was, and so we guard against the loss by building walls and shoring up the rocks at the seashore to hold off the tide from wearing away our cliff. I do that each time I leave the shore at our Maine home. One more rock against the wearing away of the tide. Immortality comes with those who will carry on what we have started. And so if we have rules for how ministers come and go, and a stable building with guidelines for safety, we feel a little more sure that this place will be here tomorrow, even if we personally are not.
Recognizing that we try to do things that bring certainty or permanence or immortality into our lives is also a recognition that we do not have bags of time. When I was young it seemed like there was always time for that bucket list of places to go and things to see, and time to be close to those who mattered to me, but that opportunity for time together seems less sure, as my career winds down, or I prepare to move, or my life gets shorter. This is a time of life when wasting time seems all the more irrelevant. Time is wasting away, and I want to enjoy myself, or deepen some relationships, and it is irrelevant if those detract from being a productive person. Wasting time is how we give ourselves a chance to see into our souls. Saving time for doing things later means you are certain you will have that time, and often that certainty is an illusion. What we should be doing is using the time we have and enjoy it while we can. You can always find an endless list of chores to complete, and you can always feel guilty at what you don’t complete, but the truth is that what you might call wasted time is the most fulfilling and necessary of all time.
A few weeks ago I attended the Boston Book Festival. One of the speakers I heard was Alan Lightman an MIT professor who has written Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine. In the book, as you heard in the reading today, Lightman describes an experience of the ineffable where he lies in a boat in the dark sea of night and merges with the cosmos, becoming one with all that is. This experience of merging with something far larger than himself in a grand and eternal unity gave him an understanding that there is something absolute that exists beyond us. This was an unusual thing for a such a devoted materialist to experience. Yet he remained a scientist despite this time of merging with the all. Even though it did not change his understanding of the material world, the experience of oneness made his imagination grow even though he knew he could not prove the Absolute he had experienced. He said the experience allowed him to imagine perfection, even though imperfect was what he is. He said the experience allowed him to imagine permanence of soul, even though he was certain of his own death. In his talk Lightman said he was deeply concerned because he feels there is an invisible destruction of our mental world. What he underscored is the importance of wasting time. Riding on the bus everyone is looking at their phones. Eating at restaurants, everyone is looking at their phones, and not at each other. When we are addicted to the external stimulation of screens, we end up with no space to waste time or space for ourselves, and our inner development. There is no space for the mind to wander if we are always watching something. And if the mind cannot wander, then the imagination cannot expand. Browsing websites might mean you are wasting time in a good sense because you are enjoying the discovery, but more likely you are using time or filling it because of boredom, and so we are neither being productive or happy or relational.
Worship is about creating a special time away from the schedule of work. This can be a time to acknowledge thinking , reflecting and praying, but it can also remind us that our lives need time to wander about and laze about to be creative and to connect. Here we may discover a dark oneness with a night sky or a shimmering reflection in reverence of water’s flow, or the glow of a child’s eyes and the creases in her mouth when she smiles in response to your joy at seeing her. It is wasting time looking and seeing and feeling.
When work time becomes a distracting time, we are not even being productive where we should be most productive. Many of us always make ourselves available, and so we never fulfill the opportunity to focus on ourselves and wander. Studies show that we actually get more done when we work less, that is work fewer hours not more. Wasting time is a way to remove all the guilt and demands you place on yourself to do this or that. It is a way to give yourself permission to read what you want, check emails at reasonable intervals, and delete the excess clutter in your mind. It is fall and the rains have come and gone. All the leaves have fallen, and have created an incredible carpet of wet souvenirs from summer’s fun. It is time to rake them up, and stow them away in bags of time from days you enjoyed. Now we can see through to the shape of trees, and the paths of streams that rush this year from the heavy rains of fall. Thoreau said, time is but the stream I go fishing in. We should follow his example of stepping into the stream that flows by, and exult in its current, seeing its rippling waters, and hear its rush of life. In those woods of streams and bare trees are cellar holes of time that was, villages and stores. May we learn from the time that passes, to embrace these fleeting moments, waste some time, and be proudly free of being productive, and enjoy the glorious season of harvest of our souls, where we see deeply into ourselves, and open a pathway to the renewal of the soul.
Closing Words – from William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
Clocks slay time… time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life.