I remember a saying that my parents used to tell me when I was slow in getting ready to leave the house. When everyone would be getting into the car to leave, my mom or dad would call out to me and say, “Get a move on! Time is of the essence.” I grew up knowing that some things were essential to life, and one of those essential things was time itself.
On the Sunday known to much of the church as Ascension Sunday, we celebrate the story of Christ’s ascension into heaven following the glory of the resurrection. In Luke 24, Jesus tells the disciples that they are to proclaim to all nations what they have witnessed in his life, death and resurrection, but in almost the same breath they are told to “stay in the city until you have been furnished with heavenly power.” (Luke 24:49b, CEB) Then he leads them out to Bethany and lifts his hands to bless them as he is then carried up into heaven. Luke then tells us that “they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem overwhelmed with joy. And they were continuously in the temple praising God.”
But you see, I am an American Christian born in a culture that doesn’t really value sitting around very much. It doesn’t matter that we are worshipping God. We are people who expect to be busy; otherwise, we are just wasting time. But this time is God’s time, and it is time that is, in my mind, essential.
When I was in seminary, I took a course on what turned out to be less than 50 pages of a massive work by the Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, and the course was based on Barth’s “anthropology of time.” It was an effort to theologically reconcile time that is eternal and human time. In some sense, it is a Christian understanding of the difference between what the Greeks called chronos and kairos. Chronos is the root word of our word chronological. It is sequential time that marks our hours that turn to days that turn to years. It is the time that defines the beginning and the end of our lives. Kairos, on the other hand, is time that is eternal, what Barth referred to as the moment of salvation that exists above our time and, in some sense, occurs in every moment of our chronological time. One of my colleagues refers to it as the reality that Jesus dies for our salvation in every minute of every day of every year.
One of my favorite spiritual writers is Henri Nouwen, who in his book written largely for clergy and people who serve in church leadership, The Living Reminder: Service and Prayer in Memory of Jesus Christ, writes that every time we suffer in this human life, we have an opportunity to connect more closely with the Christ who suffered for us. He writes:
By connecting the human story with the story of the suffering servant, we rescue our history from its fatalistic chain and allow our time to be converted from chronos into kairos, from a series of randomly organized incidents and accidents into a constant opportunity to explore God’s work in our lives.
So the question we will explore on Ascension Sunday is simply this: when did time stand still for you?
I remember when I fell in love with Leah. We were teenage sweethearts, and I was glad that I had the opportunity to spend that first summer working for her father – it was the one job I would always show up for because it would keep me close to the one I loved. Looking back, if I had had a job anywhere else, I would have likely been fired because I am not sure I would have ever been on time.
When your heart is captured by someone or something, you live life in kairos. That was a period in my life when time stood still and chronological time had little meaning for me.
So kairos is where we find the disciples waiting. To people who don’t understand, it may seem that they are just wasting time … being useless … being lazy … but in fact they are doing what Jesus said to do. Wait!
Nouwen writes to ministers and others in the church that we must be careful not to fall into that trap:
It is in the intimacy with God that we develop a greater intimacy with people and it is in the silence and solitude of prayer that we indeed can touch the heart of the human suffering to which we want to minister. Do we really believe this? It often seems that our professional busy-ness has claimed the better part of us. It remains hard for us to leave our people, our job, and the hectic places where we are needed, in order to be with him from whom all good things come. Still, it is in the silence and solitude of prayer that the minister becomes minister. There we remember that if anything worthwhile happens at all it is God’s work and not ours.
Prayer is not a way of being busy with God instead of with people. In fact, it unmasks the illusion of busy-ness, usefulness, and indispensability. It is a way of being empty and useless in the presence of God and so of proclaiming our basic belief that all is grace and nothing is simply the result of hard work. Indeed, wasting time for God is an act of ministry, because it reminds us and our people that God is free to touch anyone regardless of our well-meant efforts. Prayer as an articulate way of being useless in the face of God brings a smile to all we do and creates humor in the midst of our occupations and preoccupations.
The challenge before the disciples after Jesus’ ascension, therefore, is not to just wait and talk about anything. It is not to fill up their days with idle nonsense. Though it hurts sometimes for me to say this, it was not given as a chance to get in a few rounds of golf before the busy work of the church began after the Holy Spirit came with their new assignments.
No, the challenge before the followers of Jesus was to empty themselves before God that they might be filled when the Spirit came. It became for them a time when time itself stood still. When has time stood still for you? When will it again?